Virtualisation is reshaping the network

Network functions virtualisation aims to reduce network complexity by decreasing the reliance on hardware. We look the implications for IT

Network functions virtualisation aims to reduce network complexity by decreasing business reliance on hardware. We look the implications for IT

The network is changing. Or to be more specific, the way we manage our networks is changing. Networking functions are shifting to increasingly virtualised software-defined controls that were previously the domain of proprietary dedicated hardware.

This trend is being coalesced and propagated under the label network functions virtualisation (NFV), a movement that was first postulated at the SDN and OpenFlow World Congress exhibition in October 2012.

The concept for NFV was proposed by a group of network service providers which envisaged a route to decreasing the quantity of proprietary hardware needed to create and operate network services.

This would mean that network functions formerly executed and managed by core “usual suspect” network elements such as routers, firewalls, load balancers and application delivery controllers could now be managed by virtual machines (VMs).

The network services provided by these appliances are delivered as self-contained virtualised functions that can be logically chained together as required.

NFV is now being developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Industry Specification Group for NFV. So how does network functions virtualisation develop beyond its embryonic developmental stage? Does an IT operation need to have already embraced software-defined networking (SDN) to be able to benefit from NFV? Will cloud service providers have an important role to play in delivering NFV? How should business IT teams position themselves to exploit the new possibilities that could exist here?

Don’t junk the routers yet

In reality, it appears firms should not junk their proprietary router and server base just yet, especially for larger-scale networks where performance is paramount. Tom Nolle, president of Cimi Corporation, says the path to expenditure reduction is fuzzy at best, but it could mean new service revenue possibilities.

"The idea is that NFV will let operators virtualise network appliances and services, which can then be dynamically provisioned and integrated into a larger orchestration context. Essentially, network services such as firewalling and load balancing will be provisioned as flexibly as the applications they support," writes Nolle in an article in Computer Weekly sister title, SearchSDN. This, then, is the pure mathematical possibility, but what of the applied reality?

Looking at Riverbed Technology, most of its network hardware appliances are also available as software virtual appliances. Technical director for the Office of the CTO at Riverbed is Steve Riley. He reminds us that NFV is, potentially, a route to better agility as it removes the "organisational politics and procedural barriers" that used to exist when all infrastructure was hardware.

Riley says it is now easier for a business unit or a customer to design an application workflow, define the networking requirements and build this into a recipe that enables these functions to be stitched together when they are needed.

"NFV is currently in a stage of growth, with the primary users being service providers and telcos, rather than enterprises. We’re already seeing actual production of network functions virtualisation technologies in service providers, and we expect larger telco providers to put it into production this year," says Riley. "Service providers and telcos came up with the idea of NFV. They were tired of buying hardware boxes. As a matter of fact, one of the largest telcos has told their vendors, ‘Don’t ever sell us another box again.’ So it’s not uncommon for telcos to demand that providers sell them software instead of hardware boxes," he says.

So how do we ‘do’ NFV?

In terms of implementation, NFV will be the responsibility of network managers, senior systems administrators, experienced development and operations professionals, software system architects and others. However, the accountability is shared out. NFV is undeniably markedly different from previous network principles; the components and ingredients are the same, but the recipe and mechanisms have changed. Experimental “proof of concept” labs are, where affordable, the best way to start learning how to move NFV into live production.

Darrell Jordan-Smith, global sales head for telco vertical at Red Hat, also advises that content service providers (CSPs) need to become more comfortable with the technology through limited trials. Red Hat takes the view that this is accelerating in the market because the return on investment for NFV, in general, is compelling, he says. "Also, the agility that NFV facilitates will enable CSPs to provision new services much more quickly than before. CSPs are also actively engaged in developing the requirements for OpenStack to support applications (legacy and new) in this environment. Red Hat is working with a number of CSPs to define what the roadmap looks like and how it will develop over time so that the technology remains open (verses forked or proprietary) and thus continues to realise the proven technological and economical benefits of open source," says Jordan-Smith.

So does an IT operation need to have already embraced SDN to be able to benefit from NFV? Jordan-Smith says NFV is typically deployed inside a CSP’s network and is therefore highly coupled with SDN. “Clients in this area are very familiar with networking and have been looking at SDN for some time. In fact, one could argue that SDN and NFV are converging technologies in a CSP’s network,” he says. So how should business IT departments position themselves to exploit the new possibilities that could exist here? Jordan-Smith insists that, over time, traditional appliance-like infrastructure will be replaced with applications that sit on the cloud. He says IT shops can deliver value through integration services, application modernisation and business process re-engineering.

The SDN factor

As a closely related family cousin, the relationship played by software-defined networking is thrown up for discussion here time and time again. Director of CME/ NFV at HP Europe Amjad Shah says that one aspect important to keep in mind is that the basic benefits of NFV can be achieved without having embraced SDN.

However, SDN, especially when based on OpenFlow, has the potential of multiplying the benefits of NFV. In many ways, NFV is a logical response from the national communications service providers to increase the flexibility of their assets, to provide cloud services on a much more distributed and local footprint. As such, cloud service providers have played a role as an example of what can be done with a standardised, virtualised and automated infrastructure, he says.

Shah adds: "Fundamentally, NFV is bringing IT methodologies to the telecoms domain and, in doing so, providing the methods and resources to rebuild the world’s circuit switched voice networks to efficiently transmit packet-switched video. As a result, IT shops that are capable of bringing IT methodologies and technologies to help network service providers use NFV to deliver business outcomes are well positioned to build new, or strengthen existing, relationships."

The state of the NFV nation today

The ETSI specifications for network function virtualisation state that early deployments are already underway and are expected to accelerate during 2014-15. The specification itself states that it “challenges the industry” to work with ETSI to get NFV and related technologies “into the mainstream” of the networking industry – and to make them the mainstay of service provider networks. David Noguer Bau, head of service provider marketing at Juniper Networks, says that as has happened in many other technologies before, the market is not waiting to see the final standard specification to jump into NFV. "Some NFV solutions are being implemented already and I expect them to evolve to be fully compliant with the ETSI ISG in new releases. At Juniper, we’ve been offering virtual network functions for over a year now, including the Firefly portfolio," he says.

NFV is still in its initial growth phase, but if its capabilities for dynamic provisioning of network services, firewall protection and load balancing all flourish as promised, then it could have a major impact on IT service agility, networks and cloud before the end of the decade.

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