Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) – Moving from Vision to Operationalization

As most of the readers may know, NFV is slowly but surely happening!   While there are a handful of carriers who actually have deployed NFV commercially, most are conducting Proof of Concept (POC) trials – some are validating NFV with limited scope in specific segments of their networks while others are pursuing broad NFV trials as part of an extensive end-to-end network ecosystem.   The key drivers behind service providers’ various NFV initiatives may vary, but the main reasons still remain the same:  elastic scaling of capacity, capex predictability, rapid and flexible applications/services deployment – all of this using open source software and general purpose hardware technologies.  

Operationalization – A Key Success Factor for NFV

While the key drivers for NFV remain in play, the service providers are slowly but surely realizing that although the benefits of NFV are compelling, 'operationalization' is key to NFV's success.  What does Operationalization mean?  There are several components:

  • The ability to successfully integrate the network functions (VNFs) from various vendors in different parts of their network
  • To be able to manage/orchestrate the different VNFs from different vendors in a uniform, open and standard manner
  • Providing the same reliability/availability that they are used to today in the new NFV based infrastructure 
  • Compatibility of the NFV based infrastructure with the legacy purpose built hardware infrastructure they already have in operation

What can Service Providers do to address these challenges and operationalize NFV? Let us explore the challenges as well approaches to addressing them in this blog as well as the next ones as part of my Mobile World Congress NFV Blog series to be posted over the next few days as a run up to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week. 

Open source Technologies – A double edged sword? 

Service Providers are realizing that Operationalization is easier said than done as there are a plethora of technologies and approaches to achieving the above and each vendor has their own mechanisms to doing each of the above and not all of them are compatible.  To achieve the true operational efficiencies that NFV promises, service providers need to achieve unification of orchestration methodologies where standards must play a major role.  The reality is that open source standards, while open, may be slow to make progress on key features that are required and there may be several gaps that require major customization before they can be deployed.  Open source technologies provide an attractive proposition for service providers since the features/functionalities come at a lower cost and are independent of any particular vendor.  However, the flip side is that service providers are now at the mercy of the open source community to actually drive rapid progress and to address open standards related support issues. It’s a predicament where service providers may find themselves having to still rely on individual vendors of choice to take the open source functionality and customize it to suit their particular needs - which in turn gets them back to being dependent on the vendors.

NFV – The benefits of Hybrid Network Architectures

One important factor to consider for deployment of NFV is that operators have legacy network architectures with purpose built hardware up and running today that are servicing millions of their customers with voice, data and multi-media services.  As they look to introduce NFV into their networks, they have no choice but to contend with the challenge of ensuring that the new NFV based virtualized infrastructure can co-exist with their legacy infrastructure and that a smooth integration path be put in place in terms of management and provisioning.  Service Providers prefer to manage their new virtualized infrastructure with the same mechanisms/tools that are already in place, but this presents a new set of challenges that the standards and vendor communities need to address in an expedited manner for successful deployment of NFV solutions.   F5 can play a critical role with these network migrations due to the large breadth of solutions that are already deployed with purpose built infrastructure and equally available and deployable as F5 Virtual Network Functions (VNFs).   A smooth integration between legacy networks and evolving NFV environments is assured since all of F5 solutions, whether they are deployed on purpose built F5 Big-IP VIPRIONs or Appliances or F5 Virtual Editions (VNFs) deployed on general purpose hardware, all have the same underlying F5 Traffic Management Operation System (TMOS) and programmability features.  So, NFV migrations become easier and more cost effective since the same CLI mechanisms can be used to provision/configure and manage both the hardware based Big-IP network elements and also the Big-IP/Virtual Edition based network functions.  

In addition, purpose built solutions may still be better suited for scalability of certain network functions like SSL, IPSec, video compression, etc. as they have to handle large capacities of traffic and perform compute intensive functions. So, the reality is that we will see a co-existence of both purpose built solutions and evolving virtualized network functions in the same network which means service providers will require extensible solutions that can meet such network deployment plans.  Hence the notion of 'Hybrid' network architectures, which will be critical in terms of paving the way for easy introduction of NFV and also a smooth integration with legacy hardware based networks.  F5 is uniquely able to offer such an extensive combination of purpose built hardware and virtualized COTS based solutions which will be most effective and beneficial in addressing the unique and changing needs of large service providers.

Look for my follow up thoughts on this (my Mobile World Congress NFV Blog series) in the next few days as I will share how F5 is fully engaged with global operators to help solve these specific problems.

Read Part 2: NFV - Orchestration – Many Technologies, Approaches, and Confusion – The Need for Convergence

Read Part 3: NFV – Some Real Use Cases. Where are things all heading in the future?


Published Feb 25, 2015
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