As businesses hurtle headlong into the world of cloud computing they are trying to accelerate their IT deployments in order to move faster than the other guy. In this world, virtualization—a mainstay in the storage and computing areas—finally makes it to networking through technologies like Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). SDN gets all of the headlines and attention, because it is happening inside the datacenter; companies are investigating SDN for their own networks. NFV is much quieter in the market, but that is not stopping companies like AT&T, Brocade Communications Systems, Cisco Systems, Citrix Systems, Dell, F5 Networks, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Verizon Communications from investing effort into products to fill this market. NFV is carrier-driven, not customer-driven, and these vendors see a nearer term revenue opportunity for NFV.
Image source: John Fruehe & clker.com
Similar to SDN, NFV brings virtualization to network functions that were normally delivered by your carrier through proprietary hardware appliances, making them rigid, expensive, and harder to deal with. NFV and SDN both rely on many of the same technologies and principles in order to deliver their functionality, but the key difference for the layman is:
- SDN lives, for the most part, within the datacenter
- NFV lives on the edge of the datacenter, on the border between the company’s network and the carrier’s network
NFV encompasses the set of functions—like load balancing, firewalls, intrusion detection, or WAN acceleration—that live along the border and help the carrier maintain their service and connection to the customer. Some may believe that because these are carrier-provided that the equipment shouldn’t matter to them, but nothing could be further from the truth. What your carrier is doing on the edge of your network can be a great impact in helping you both maintain costs and move your business faster, so it is worth having that discussion with your carrier about their NFV plans today.
While some of the biggest savings from NFV are realized by carriers like AT&T or Verizon Communications, why should that matter to your company? Clearly, when carrier costs go down in a competitive environment (like IT services) those savings will ultimately flow through to the end customer in some manner. But while cost savings are nice, it is hardly the driver here; the big benefits to end customers revolve around both the ability to be more flexible and the better level of support that a carrier can deliver through consistency.
NFV Drives Agility
Everyone loves the word agility and in simple English that means your business has the ability to move faster, better reacting to changing conditions in the market. With business cycles shrinking and competition coming from all sides—including non-traditional places (think disruptors like Uber)—companies need the ability to move quickly, changing offerings and adding services when they stumble across opportunity.
One of the things that often holds back businesses when they need to move quickly is their networking. Frequently it is the company’s internal IT that just can’t move fast enough to support the business. But the bigger challenge comes when the carrier (with their own set of priorities) simply can’t deliver services fast enough for customers, no matter how hard the customer pushes or how much they offer to pay. By virtualizing these functions through NFV, a carrier can deliver them faster, make changes quickly, and drive better overall service levels for end customers. This means that your carrier can go from the one holding you back to the one who is actually helping you enable new business models or pursue new opportunities. Additionally, because these new virtualized functions are software-based and tend to rely on open standards, it is easier for your IT team to be able to pull data out of them regarding health and status, giving businesses better insight into their networks.
NFV Enables Better Support
While most businesses pay little attention to the carrier equipment from companies like Cisco Systems or Juniper Networks that connects them to the outside world, the carriers fret and obsess about every single piece. When something goes wrong they are on the hook to resolve the issue, and the fact that every customer location is different only complicates things. Even if carriers try to standardize on the same hardware appliances in every customer location, over time they will end up with different hardware, firmware, system software, or application versions. And unfortunately, once a physical appliance is installed, it’s not coming out unless it dies completely. So when problems arise, the first thing a technician has to do is ascertain all of the different revisions of the products and components before they can begin the troubleshooting process. Every location is just slightly different, which can be maddening.
But with NFV, your carrier can update the virtual appliances remotely, helping to ensure that at each of your locations the virtualized appliances are identical. This accelerates troubleshooting not just for your business, but for all of the businesses that the carrier is supporting, which means when problems arise, your business is back online faster. This also brings down the long-term support costs, which should ultimately roll some savings back to end customers, again making NFV more beneficial for customers because it helps drive carrier savings.
What Does This Really Mean?
Ultimately, customers don’t have the luxury of demanding that carriers like AT&T, Sprint Corporation, or Verizon Communications embrace NFV today because this is not a customer-driven decision. The good news is that because NFV is a carrier-driven initiative (due to the benefits that we pointed out above) most carriers are already on board in some manner. Almost all are looking at it today to determine how it impacts them, but their level of engagement / acceptance will vary based on both technical and business constraints.
Businesses should be engaging with their carriers to better understand their carrier plans around NFV. While customers will not be able to force this transition, their voice can help to shape those plans; providing input into how NFV can help them move their businesses faster will be critical knowledge to help shape carriers’ plans for the future. And this then trickles down to the equipment vendors like Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard that are working to bring NFV to the market.