Keeping NFV on the radar

Keeping NFV on the radar

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Bart Salaets, senior systems engineering director at F5, explains why NFV is still critical for service providers

Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) has been championed with varying intensity in the telco industry for the past few years, though many claim the technology has lost its appeal. However, while adoption rates have fallen short of initial predictions, evidence suggests that NFV is as relevant as ever. Perhaps even more so.

Industry teething problems

In an NFV architecture, the hardware is decoupled from the software. A common hardware layer (off-the-shelf servers) is leveraged to host vendor-supplied network functions running in virtual machines.

These are known as virtual network functions (VNF).

When used optimally, NFV architectures can speed up the enablement of new services and network functions, as well provide near real-time elastic network scaling to reduce the cost of ownership.

To date, NFV uptake has been slower than expected due to technological complexity and a closely-related skill gap. An industry failure to deliver on projected cost benefits early on has also hit confidence levels. Deploying, patching, and orchestrating VNFs from several vendors has also proven difficult and cost prohibitive.

Nevertheless, NFV is still on most service providers’ radars. And for good reason.

Service Providers need NFV. Here’s why.

5G technology will fuel new service use cases, each imposing different network requirements related to speed, latency, and isolation. So, to deliver at scale, the underlying network needs to be software-driven and automated. This is why NFV is necessary. It is the next step towards all-encompassing virtualisation, which 5G demands.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also intensified telcos’ attention on the technology, as the ability to remotely control, manage, and provision network services in a software-defined way is proving increasingly popular. Figures from

Research and Markets show that the global NFV market is projected to grow from US$12.9 billion in 2019 to $36.3 billion by 2024.

Other research suggests that while we will continue to use today’s VNFs, the organisations running them will likely operate in a different way, as service providers will be empowered to launch new services via automation and orchestration tools. These could be commercial platforms delivered by traditional telecom vendors, or the same open source tools their IT and cloud colleagues use, like Ansible or Terraform.

Some service providers are now starting to merge their cloud and NFV teams, which will further prompt industry best practices for tool sharing, service deployment and automation.

For example, a little over a year ago, an alliance of telcos and vendors launched the Common NFVi Telco Task Force

(CNTT) to simplify NFV standards. CNTT aims to align the industry around unified network functions virtualisation infrastructure (NFVi) implementations to reduce the friction for onboarding virtual network functions (VNFs) and, eventually, container network functions (CNFs).

Clearly, NFV is not dead — it is evolving as we speak. In the foreseeable future, it is a good bet that we will see both VNFs and CNFs being deployed side by side for different functions. In this scenario, we’re likely to see more and more service providers proactively creating and presiding over their own agile, distributed “telco clouds.”

NFV and cloud providing flexibility

We shouldn’t think about NFV in isolation. Instead, we should consider the transformational benefits it can bring to the end user. NFV is not only about virtualising network functions, it’s about delivering a path towards a full cloud native network.

As more networks evolve to NFV, the abstraction of the control and data-forwarding planes will continue to simplify the creation and management of new services. If done correctly, service providers should be able to leverage a programmable network based on industry standard open APIs that unlock new levels of flexibility and agility.

Ultimately, service providers need to think strategically about NFV in the wider context of an adaptive journey. Increasingly, this will entail being a vital cog in the telco cloud: an infrastructure built out to the edge with both VNFs and CNFs, as well as applications and their associated services (e.g. load balancing and security) — irrespective of where they are deployed.

While NFV doesn’t need to be re-hyped as the buzziest term in the game, it would be a big mistake for service providers to underestimate its enduring (and continually evolving) merits.

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