While telecommunications carriers are no doubt at the forefront of network functions virtualization (NFV), it turns out that more traditional enterprise IT organizations are not very far behind. A recent survey of 466 IT professionals conducted by Quinstreet Enterprise, publisher of eWeek and CIO Insight, finds, not only do 44 percent report they are evaluating NFV software, 16 percent say they are already using it.
Most of the traditional enterprise interest in NFVs is two-fold. Initial adoption tends to be at a remote office where IT organizations are trying to reduce the need to have IT administrators on site. By eliminating the physical appliance at that remote site in favor of NFV to provide, for example, a firewall, it becomes a lot simpler to remotely manage IT services.
But enterprise interest in NFV doesn’t stop at the edge of the network. As IT organizations look to build out private clouds, many of them are finding that traditional approaches to managing network services are simply too labor intensive. The average IT organization may be able to spin up a virtual machine in a matter of minutes. Provisioning the associated network services, however, still often takes weeks. If an IT organization wants to become more agile via the construction of a private cloud, there needs to be a faster way to provision network services on demand.
For that reason, interest in all things related to software-defined networking (SDN) is incredibly high. SDN provides the framework needed to manage networks at a higher level of abstraction. Once that framework is in place, the IT organization has a methodology for quickly provisioning and updating both physical and virtual resources. Over time, those virtual resources in the form of NFVs will replace most of the physical networking infrastructure that IT organizations today find so challenging to manage.
Naturally, there’s an intense battle among Cisco, VMware, and a host of other rivals over which will provide that SDN framework. At the core of the debate is a Cisco effort to extend its current dominance over networking, using an SDN framework that can either be deployed on its hardware or on commodity networking infrastructure. VMware, meanwhile, wants to extend its dominance of the virtual switches that get deployed with every virtual machine to extend control over both servers and networks. To that end, VMware just announced it has partnered with more than 30 vendors to add NFV functionality to its cloud platform.
At the same time, a number of networking vendors are promoting what they describe as a more open approach to SDN. Many of those vendors plan to make use of the open source OpenStack framework as the foundational layer for managing the NFVs that wind up getting deployed across those SDN environments.
It’s too early to say how this battle will ultimately play out. Cisco and VMware clearly enjoy incumbent vendor status. In traditional enterprise organizations that don’t have access to network engineering talent, the need for products that don’t require as much technical skill to master tends to favor them. But in organizations that do have a lot of internal engineering talent, the low cost of open source technologies provides too much in the way of savings to ignore.
Regardless of the approach taken, the one thing that is clear is NFVs will not only make IT infrastructure ultimately simpler to manage and acquire – it will change the way IT departments are organized. Instead of requiring a large number of expensive specialists to manage every silo of functionality, NFVs in combination with SDN will enable IT generalists to effectively manage IT at a much higher level of abstraction.
That will not only reduce the cost of labor associated with managing IT infrastructure. It will, just as importantly, allow a lower number of IT generalists to manage IT infrastructure at an unprecedented level of scale.