Since then, NFV has proven its merits in large-scale, revenue-generating production deployments as network operators accelerate their digital transformation initiatives and journey to the Adaptive Network.

But what exactly is NFV, and how does it fit into the current industry drive toward transformation? Let’s start with the basics.

What is NFV?

NFV decouples network functions, like firewall or encryption, from dedicated—and proprietary—hardware appliances, and instantiates them as software-based Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) on off-the-shelf x86-based servers that can be sited on the customer premises, in the service provider’s network, or in the cloud.

The VNFs can be flexibly connected with other VNFs or physical appliances and elements in a ‘service chain’ to create highly customized services.

What are the advantages of NFV?

NFV affords several significant business and technical advantages to network operators, including CAPEX and OPEX reduction and improved service scalability.

Let’s consider these advantages in a business context .

In a legacy network, the eval process starts with a review of physical equipment specifications in order to ensure the lab has the space and power needed to support the appliances. Then, the equipment must be sourced, shipped, unpackaged, and installed—manual tasks that can result in breakage or human error. When the eval is over, the same process is reversed.

With NFV, operators avoid this expensive and inefficient upfront process, and simply download the VNF software and install it on servers that are likely already present in their labs. Then, they’re ready to go. When the eval is over, there is nothing to repack and ship. 

Like the eval process, traditional hardware deployments impose high start-up costs. Proprietary appliances must be sized for peak demand; site surveys across all facilities are needed to ensure space and power compatibility; appliances must be shipped, unpackaged, and installed. Skilled technicians are needed for installation and configuration, which may involve multiple truck rolls. 

With NFV, VNFs are simply downloaded onto standard servers, and features such as zero-touch provisioning automate the activation process, ultimately reducing or eliminating expensive truck rolls and human involvement.

Finally, in a traditional hardware deployment, scaling the service up to meet increased demand requires additional appliances and may even result in rip and replace hardware upgrades. With NFV, however, service scale is defined by software license upgrades. 

NFV also has advantages when service demand fails to materialize, because a VNF can easily be removed and the virtual machine that supported it can be allocated to another application. In contrast, decommissioning a service delivered by service-specific appliance results in wasted CAPEX and additional OPEX for equipment removal and disposal.

Is NFV standardized?

NFV standards are defined by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Industry Specification Group (ISG) for NFV1, which includes more than 300 companies and 38 service providers. The ETSI ISG NFV community has published dozens of NFV reports and specifications on architecture, functional components, and protocols.

ETSI’s NFV scope includes specifying Management and Orchestration (MANO) guidelines for orchestrating NFV Infrastructure (NFVI) resources and for instantiating, managing, and chaining VNFs. Vendor-agnostic orchestrators that have a strong policy component and support for both overlay (virtual) and underlay (physical) networks are critical to successful NFV deployments, as hybrid networks will be the norm for the foreseeable future.

Is anyone using NFV?

Major commercial NFV deployments began in 2017, often in conjunction with Software-Defined Networking (SDN)2. More recently, 80 percent of service provider respondents to an IHS Markit survey3 indicate they have deployed NFV in their production networks.

Today, cloud service providers have universally implemented NFV across their access networks, and many network service providers are using NFV in support of their business-oriented VPN services and SD-WAN services, as NFV allows them to efficiently offer value-added services that increase service revenue and competitive differentiation without requiring costly specialized network equipment. Additionally, virtual Evolved Packet Core  (vEPC) is showing tremendous promise to help pave the way for widespread 5G networks and services deployments.

Summary

Along with SDN, NFV creates an agile, automated, and programmable network environment, providing network operators with the ability to implement a software-centric network infrastructure that can adapt dynamically to customer needs and requirements.

Resources

Video: Transforming to Closed-loop Automation

Video: What is NFV?

Video: What is SDN?

Blue Planet NFV Orchestration product page

Blue Planet Automation and Orchestration data sheet

Ciena Service Delivery Switches and Platforms


1 ETSI ISG NFV information from www.etsi.org/committee/nfv

2 SDN gives operators centralized and automated control over their physical and virtual network elements.

3 Telecom Trends and Drivers Biannual Market Report: H1 2019 (published 13 June 2019), IHS MARKIT