NFV: The future of virtual networking

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Telecoms are making investment in network function virtualization (NFV), the latest technology implemented for virtual networking.

Investment in NFV can eliminate most of the network devices above the optical layer except some SDN devices used for forwarding control. NFV network architecture concept uses the technologies of IT virtualization to virtualize entire classes of network node functions into building blocks that may connect, or chain together, to create communication services.

Like NFV, Software-Defined Networking (SDN) is an approach with the ability to programmatically define and manage networks. This programmability empowers operators to take a holistic view of their networks so they can be dynamically configured end-to-end. Though SDN is not a mandatory technology for NFV, it is complementary to it, because SDN allows configurable and flexible networking to support dynamic virtual instances of network functions in an NFV system.

SDN also brings the ability to dynamically chain together VNFs to realize a network service. Also, it is able to direct service flows of arbitrary granularity into those service chains. In addition, SDN can act as an enabler for NFV. By separating out the control plane, SDN supports distributed virtualized switching functionality implemented completely in software running on top of standard hardware.

Telecoms invest in NFV and SDN

Many existing telecoms have started deploying NFV related solutions for network operations and IT this year along with SDN, for various customers.

During a recent NFV test, ZTE, a telecom network maker from China, has adopted management and orchestration (MANO) and IP multimedia subsytem (IMS) solutions, which satisfied China Mobile’s requirements. ZTE worked alongside VMware, HPE, and Red Hat to verify the interoperability of different configurations of hardware resource layers, virtual resource layers and virtualized network functions (VNF) layers.

American wireless operator AT&T has added to its Network on Demand platform with NFV and SDN, which targets enterprise customers with the ability to significantly speed up the deployment and provisioning of network services.

Meanwhile, Verizon, a rival of AT&T, announced SDN plans, last year, with five vendors, namely, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Juniper Networks, and Nokia Networks. Verizon has been working on the move toward virtualized platforms for several years, with new live lab environments and claims to have commercial data center environments on both coasts.

Cisco has introduced its new NFV Infrastructure Solution (NFVI), which combines virtual and physical environment providing all the necessary compute, storage, and networking infrastructure to run NFV network services, complementing existing virtualization solutions like the Cisco Virtualized Packet Core (VPC). It combines all mobile packet core services for 4G, 3G, 2G, Wi-Fi, and small cell networks into a single solution.

Vodacom, a telecom operator in South Africa, is in the integration phase to use the Cisco VPC, with NFV Infrastructure and Cisco Advanced Services delivery to scale network capacity and introduce new services faster and more cost-effectively.

Ooredoo, a telecom operator with operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, has tapped Cisco to set Ooredoo’s roadmap for NFV deployments and to deliver Virtual Managed Services (VMS) to the Qatar market.

Swisscom has selected Ericsson for delivering telecom cloud infrastructure and NFV of core network functions. Ericsson will also provide VNF for Swisscom core network, including complete virtual Evolved Packet Core and virtual IMS which will be managed by the Ericsson Network Manager.

XL Axiata has selected Ericsson to transform its network through the deployment of disaggregated architecture. Ericsson will be implementing its cloud solution, including the Ericsson Hyperscale Datacenter System 8000 based on Intel Rack Scale Architecture, and VNFs as part of XL Axiata’s cloud evolution and realization of NFV.

Digicel in Guyana implemented Latin America’s first virtualized core network live with Ericsson for 100,000 subscribers enabling 3G mobile broadband services to Digicel subscribers in the Caribbean with complete NFV solution including Ericsson Virtual Evolved Packet Core and Ericsson Cloud Execution Environment.

VimpelCom is implementing a complete virtual network infrastructure providing 4G, 3G and 2G mobile data services to customers across five markets in 2016. VimpelCom has engaged ZTE Corporation to introduce the fully virtualized network in Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Tajikistan during the course of 2016.

Telefonica has tapped Juniper Networks to provide the core infrastructure for its next generation Fusion Network, which is intended to become a high performance, intelligent SDN control, service rich core network with NFV programmability.

NFV for federal IT networks

NFV can also provide benefits for federal IT networks by reducing operational costs, improving speed and replacing rolls to deploy new hardware.

A recent report from Technology Business Research has noted that the NFV and the SDN platforms will continue to see PoC testing by telecom operators in 2016, with greater adoption not expected until 2017.

TBR noted that some early adopter tier-one telecom operators have moved PoC use cases with virtual evolved packet core, virtual IP multimedia subsystem and virtual customer premise equipment from commercial pre-deployment to full deployment. TBR expects a majority of those operators to continue with PoCs throughout 2016 as they continue to work through major issues.

Bright future for SDN and NFV

Though widespread adoption of NFV and SDN remains to be slow, analysts have predicted that the technology will receive more investment in the coming five years.

IHS predicted in 2015 that the global market for NFV hardware, software, and services would surge from $2.3 billion in 2015, to $11.6 billion in 2019. Service providers are going through the initial stages of transformation towards virtualized network platforms, which will be a 10 to 15 year process, claim researchers. Revenues from outsourced services will be directed towards NFV projects, resulting in around 71 percent annual growth rate from 2014 to 2019, with revenue from software-only video content delivery network functions to grow thirty times from 2015 to 2019.

Estimates suggest that service provider SDN and NFV investments will grow at a CAGR of 54 percent between 2015 and 2020, eventually accounting for over $20 Billion in revenue by the end of 2020.

At present, virtualized EPC/mobile core, IMS and policy control platforms represent over 70 percent of all VNF software investments. Though the use of SDN is widespread in the enterprise and data center domain, service providers are only starting to adopt the technology to programmatically manage their networks.

Investments on orchestration platforms will account for nearly $2 billion in revenue by the end of 2020, representing more than 9 percent of all service provider SDN and NFV spending. The growing adoption of SDN and NFV has also created an opportunity for silicon and server OEMs to combine their server platforms with a networking business stream.

NFV operational challenges

The network evolution by operators has to be focused on being service-driven, and should coincide with organization evolution. For, SDN/NFV technology, there is the requirement for open, flexible and elastic architecture, to be provided by the operators in order to manage network more freely and efficiently, and to provide a customized network to the user. The operator also has to be in line with the new technologies and new architectures, along with interfacing with the existing ones.

The operational challenges that will come up with the transformation will include a number of significant changes in the operational environment and will need component standards around APIs rather than system level specifications.

Though, scaling is one of the best benefits of the cloud infrastructure with cloud enabling dynamic adapting  of the network according to the performance demand and business policies, the main challenge for scaling is synchronization of topology and configuration changes in an NFV infrastructure.

Achieving the same level of monitoring and measurement in a cloud environment will be more challenging and difficult than in a traditional telecom environment with increasing system, third-party,  and open-source software complexity; interoperability across hardware and software components provided by different parties; user inexperience; and software bugs.

Providing geographical separation for redundant VNFs that provide critical services and location transparency exceptions for some applications creates a need for the operator to incorporate the VNF deployment specifications.

Lastly, the security for such a network is also very critical. At a minimum, current threats and best practices for securing cloud; network; and application environments, must be taken into consideration, and solutions must be developed accordingly.

Also, when using SDN to support and optimize the operation of VNFs, wide area network (WAN) links and the network services that use them, there are a number of things operators should consider to successfully integrate SDN into their NFV platforms. Some of the issues are placement of the SDN controller in NFV architecture, deploying virtual or physical switches, dealing with component failure and recovery, and the integration of different vendors’ solutions into a seamless service, where SDN will act as the joint.

Vina Krishnan
[email protected]