Network functions virtualization (NFV), software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization are three terms that are rapidly changing the way we design, build and use networks. But challenges exist with how to make these technologies functional in real-world applications.
The challenges that come with the demand for instant access to technologies is the ability to ensure that networks are fully functional and that providers can build in a high level of service assurance. As more aspects of the network become virtualized, along with the ability to scale up and down, certain assurances need to be put into place.
NFV decouples the network functions, such as network address translation (NAT), firewalling, and intrusion detection, from proprietary hardware appliances. This offers a new way to design, deploy and manage networking services through the consolidation and delivery of networking components needed to support a fully virtualized infrastructure.
NFV becomes ubiquitous with such functions as running network functions on general-purpose hardware, taking network functions in and out of service with ability to scale up and down as needed, and automate service delivery via orchestration, to name a few. Service providers continue to embrace NFV, with AT&T Integrated Cloud, Verizon OpenStack and Cisco Enterprise NFV as three primarily examples.
SDN, which is often associated with things like server virtualization, is more about network flexibility and agility. Consider it a network of objects, all highly automated. Switches, routers and firewalls, for example, automated via open source tools, enabling network engineers and administrators to respond quickly to changing requirements. And now, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are taking SDN to the next level, enabling the automatic monitoring and management of the wireless LAN, as just one example.
Today’s mobile devices boast high storage capabilities and a range of powerful features. This means the ability for network providers to ensure these functions operate flawlessly has become more important than ever. Network software has become more advanced, meeting the advanced security standards that come with virtualization. Things like SDN and NFV allow for better control of the network, with the ability to scale and provide a high level of flexibility.
Organizations like the Broadband Forum are furthering the importance of these technologies through standardization projects, such as one with NTT on the use of SDN and NFV is the PON networks of service providers.
While telecom providers recognize the importance of NFV and SDN (and virtualization in general), evidence suggests that most are still in the early stages of adoption. Among the most common barriers to adoption include company culture that struggles to adapt to an agile environment, the ability to acquire and retain the necessary skillsets to operate these technologies, and in some cases a struggle to justify the business case overall.
The emerging path to NFV/SDN adoption starts with a focus on building scaled virtualization of a handful of core functions or subsystems. This should be done in a manner that minimizes risk, dependencies and organizational change. From there, organizations may be able to focus on customer and service-led models of deployment.
Unified adoption of virtualization technologies adds a layer of efficiency that aligns with being able to deliver dynamic services across the core network. TIA’s core strength as a standards organization and convener of industry groups provides ways to influence new developments in virtualization.