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The network function virtualization (NFV) market as it exists today is largely fragmented around two commercial software-defined networking (SDN) platforms from VMware and Cisco and several open source alternatives. Each of platforms is doing everything they can to build ecosystems around their offering as part of an effort to stimulate demand.
Much of those efforts today are focused on education. After all, it’s difficult to stimulate demand for technologies that no one really knows how to implement and manage. As part of those efforts each of the major platform providers is moving toward creating online stores for various NFV offerings. For a networking community that is accustomed to acquiring and provisioning physical appliances, these online stores serve as a way to get networking technology. Most networking professionals today are conditioned to think in terms of buying boxes using purchase orders that take months to process versus downloading software that they can then globally distribute.
In fact, the entire channel ecosystem that has evolved around networking is about to be transformed. Today most organizations still acquire networking gear either directly from a vendor or via one of their business partners. Those business partners in turn usually order hardware from a distributor that stores large amounts of networking hardware in a warehouse. NFVs eliminate much of the need for that hardware by making the functions that used to be deployed on a physical appliance available as software that can be downloaded to a server. Of course, downloading software is one thing. Having a mature set of DevOps processes in place to programmatically distribute and update it is an entirely different matter.
Obviously, it’s still early days in terms of turning the NFV vision of networking into reality. Every networking vendor to one degree or another is trying to recruit third-party providers of NFVs to participate in their ecosystem. Even more interesting is the way each of the major public clouds represents yet another platform on which an NFV can be deployed. In effect, providers of NFVs become independent software vendors (ISVs) that will need to decide which platforms make the most economic sense to host their software. The inherent challenge they will face is keeping track of what version of their software is available and supported at any given time. That dilemma becomes even more problematic when trying to balance proprietary versus open application programming interfaces.
Naturally, vendors providing NFV software hope this brave new world of networking software consumption will wind up being more lucrative as the number of software modules licensed increases. Vendors providing open source software also hope that the new distribution mechanisms for their software will result in greater demand for the services they provide. The first thing most NFV vendors will need to decide is what business model they find most appealing.
In the meantime, providers of NFVs are still waiting for the overall NFV market to mature to the point where making that decision becomes a more pressing issue. Demand for NFVs among carriers and enterprise IT organizations is still relatively nascent. “It’s pretty tough to be in the NFV business right now,” says Patrick Filkins, an industry analyst with Technology Business Research (TBR).
It appears that much of the underlying network infrastructure in the near future is set to become the modern equivalent of the low cost razor. That razor is given away in hope that the number of NFV blades being consumed exponentially increases.