As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, several new technological trends have begun to transform the systems that enable us to both work and live. Network Function Virtualization (NFV) is allowing network operators to both reduce their outgoings and speed-up the deployment of new services and this concept is currently becoming more and more widespread around the world. In this two-part series of articles, we’ll be looking at what Network Function Virtualization is, how it works, how it compares to SDN, what its benefits are and, later, what it means for the Fourth Industrial Revolution alongside the likes of Software Defined Networking (SDN).
Network function virtualization over the last years has become one of the hottest topics for discussion among interested business professionals, tech experts, and those with a love of all things technology. Much of the excitement over NFV stems from its potential to enable much faster and more agile network infrastructure while also enabling cost reductions at the same time.
Initially introduced as a white paper at the 2012 SDN and OpenFlow World Congress in Darmstadt, Germany, network function virtualization is now an increasingly widespread concept which has the backing of every major network and telecommunications operators as well as their suppliers.
So, if network function virtualization has such potential for network infrastructure and the backing of all major players in that sector, how exactly does it work?
What Exactly is Network Function Virtualization?
In its broadest terms, network function virtualization is a concept that looks to provide more network agility and reduce costs through decoupling certain functions such as firewall, load balancing, Session-Border Control, Switching, Routing, Traffic Analysis and QoE measurement, from traditional, dedicated hardware and turning them into hardware-agnostic software based network functions.
There are three main components to any NFV architecture, these are the NFV infrastructure and virtual infrastructure manager which are the computing, storage and networking resources to be virtualized; management and orchestration software components which look after the lifecycle of virtual network functions and services; and the virtual network functions themselves.
Each of these components are essential to fully realizing the potential of network function virtualization and to reap the benefits it is able to provide. These components, however, are just one side of the story when it comes to NFV.
Many of the challenges associated with this technology are more to do with the telecom enterprises trying to integrate them than the individual elements of the network itself. Over the past few years, one of the biggest challenges with building network infrastructure is leveraging cost with functionality.
One of the ways NFV works is by replacing proprietary and often expensive physical hardware with virtual servers and machines that perform network functions, allowing operators to deploy new functions by simply setting up a new virtual machine.
With network function virtualization, operators are no longer dependent on older physical hardware to perform network functions such as firewall or encryption as these functions can be loaded onto software and that software deployed on a standardized server that is already a part of the network, helping to improve both scalability and customization.
NFV & SDN
With so much terminology to wrap your head around these days, it’s really no surprise many people still get the two confused. While network function virtualization and software defined networking do share several similarities in various areas, they are in fact distinct from each other.
The biggest difference between the two essentially comes down to automation. NFV is the process of moving network functions to a virtual environment, however, this does not then include generating policies to automate them.
This can change when SDN is combined with NFV infrastructure as the centralized management element of software-defined networks allows packets of data to be forwarded from one device to another. This, alongside the ability of NFV to route control functions to run on virtualized machines located on chosen servers.
As we move into a future that includes continued development of both network function virtualization and software-defined networking technologies, their combination will become increasingly widespread and will likely lead to further advances in both fields.
Benefits of Network Function Virtualization
NFV has shown to bring several benefits to service providers as well as shown promise alongside other technologies such as SDN, which in itself is currently transforming both network virtualization and automation.
Some of the biggest benefits to be gained from network function virtualization include enhanced network agility to allow operators to deploy new network functions or services rapidly. Customization is also an attractive aspect of network function virtualization as giving network operators the ability to build bespoke infrastructure has the potential to raise services levels for end-users.
Enhanced network customization and agility can also allow for even greater scalability of network functions and services. This is beneficial as it gives network operators the ability to expand or shrink their networks much easier than has been possible before and allows them to shift along with their customer’s demands as and when they need to.
As network function virtualization technologies evolve and mature, we are sure to see an increase in their use alongside combinations of technologies such as SDN, machine learning, mesh networking and other advanced networking technologies, many of which we have seen emerge over the last several years. It is these topics we will turn to in part two of this series.
In Part two of this series, we’ll be looking at whether or not both NFV and SDN are key to continuing our technological drive into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and all it brings.