Can software really replace cumbersome and often expensive hardware in the network? This is the idea behind network functions virtualisation (NFV), an evolving area of networking in which devices such as routers, firewalls and load balancers are replaced by software-based appliances running as virtual machines on x86 servers. It’s a concept that is quickly gaining traction and will transform the way network operators manage their networks and deploy services. With a predicted global NFV market size of USD11.6 billion in 2019 (according to research firm IHS Markit*) – covering hardware, software and services – NFV software is expected to account for more than 80% of the total.
NFV decouples network functions from dedicated hardware devices and moves them to virtual servers, consolidating multiple functions into a single physical server. This approach reduces costs and minimises the need for costly on-site visits (known as ‘truck rolls’) and hands-on maintenance, because the virtual appliances replace dedicated, hardware-based network appliances. The patchwork of elements that make up today’s networks can theoretically be narrowed down to industry-standard servers, storage devices and packet optical transport networks.
Network administrators utilise orchestration software to deploy and manage the virtual appliances running on a network. Like virtual machines, virtual appliances can be selected and deployed based on the needs of the network.
Whenever a service provider needs to add a new network function, they can simply create a new virtual machine to perform that function. Once that function is no longer needed, the provider can simply disable it.
Increasing network flexibility and agility
So, for example, a service provider may want to add encryption to their network. Instead of deploying a dedicated hardware appliance to do the job, they can deploy encryption software on a server or switch already in the network. Reliance on dedicated, often costly, hardware appliances is reduced, scalability and resource utilisation is improved and customisation of the network becomes much, much easier.
Virtualisation has revolutionised the desktop and the server and now it is the turn of networking to reap the same benefits of cost reduction and simplified management. Applications are taxing networks for bandwidth, flexibility and speed, but overbuilding networks to accommodate peak traffic loads is beyond the reach of most operators because it is simply too expensive.
At the same time, buying application-specific hardware for a single application and then engineering, configuring and expecting it to be in service for eight to 10 years or more (to ensure reasonable ROI) is not realistic. NFV, with programmability using software control, provides greater agility and control of the network and its core functions.
NFV may be relatively young but it’s clear that CTOs are keen to press ahead with virtualisation of their networks.
A recent survey by CED Magazine, highlighted in a Ciena white paper, canvassed 165 senior technology decision makers about their thoughts on network virtualisation. 58% of those surveyed said network virtualisation was ‘very important’ or ‘important’, while 26% said virtualisation was ‘moderately important’.
Why is NFV gaining this kind of attention from decision makers?
35% cited the ability to more easily deliver new services, while 26% said the ability to scale is the most important benefit. 19% said cost savings are the most important driver for virtualisation and 17% highlighted the automation of processes as the most important feature. Availability and privacy were some of the other drivers for virtualisation.
Virtualisation is clearly starting to move from great idea to reality.
While 50% of respondents said they ‘didn’t know’ when virtualisation would happen, 22% said they are already doing it, 14% said they’ll be doing it in the next year and 8% said they’ll be bringing virtualisation to their networks over the next two years.
Ciena has identified four key benefits of NFV – the need for less physical space; lower power consumption; reduced network maintenance costs and simpler and faster network upgrades.
The company is helping to accelerate the move to virtualised architectures with its Blue Planet orchestration software, as well as an open and complete ‘Distributed Network Functions Virtualisation’ (D-NFV) Solution. D-NFV includes the virtual infrastructure, software, hardware and professional services that network operators need to quickly and reliably roll-out new virtual network services, such as SD-WAN, IP routing, firewalls and encryption.
The combined Blue Planet and D-NFV solution meets the needs of service providers that want to expand their Ethernet business services to include virtual network services such as software-based routing and encryption. The solution is open, allowing customers to mix any of the solution’s individual components with offerings from any other provider.
All service providers want networks that are more cost effective to build, easier to manage and that allow new services to be rolled out more rapidly. NFV is a rapidly emerging area of networking that promises to make this a reality – so, it’s a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.