Yes, there is a lot of hype about network functions virtualization (NFV) — for good reason. It holds tremendous promise for service providers. At a time when existing connectivity services are yielding shrinking margins, NFV can enable applications that help introduce new services to market faster while reducing the overall cost for service delivery.
It is therefore no surprise that there is huge demand for the streamlined service delivery approach and that the demand is fueling accelerated technology and standardization roadmaps. In less than 10 months since initial concept, for example, ETSI has produced the first specifications for NFV. Many vendors have announced their intention to develop NFV-based solutions while others have recast existing solutions as “NFV-based”. Amidst all of the vendor announcements and hype, we are now starting to see some service providers evaluating early solutions.
Industry-changing innovation, however, does not happen overnight. It takes time to test it and make sure it can deliver what it promises and solves real business problems. Otherwise, it is just an intellectually interesting science project.
The challenge for service providers now is to sort through the hype, evaluate what products are emerging, and figure out a roadmap for the adoption of an NFV solution that doesn’t call for rip-and-replace upgrades or completely redefining existing service portfolios. The best way to do this is to start asking NFV vendors about their solutions and strategies.
Here are some questions to help you get started.
Platform or targeted solution?
NFV should be the start of a new services delivery platform, and any solutions vendor that you choose should help you achieve your long-term infrastructure vision. That said, no one is going to forklift an existing service delivery network for NFV. You will want to start small, in one region or with one service, to fully test the reliability and the new operational model. You might introduce NFV to offer security services today, VoIP services tomorrow, and content delivery services after that.
Choose a vendor, therefore, that lets you start small but think big. Is this vendor’s solution a point product that solves one business problem today or a framework that can lead to many new business services in the future? Does the vendor’s roadmap for the solution show you how to add new services over time? For example, if you start with a managed firewall service today, can the vendor’s solution also enable an IDS/IPS service, an AV service or a secure VPN service to deliver a complete UTM offering over time? How about enabling you to reuse existing hardware for completely different service offerings? It should be a services delivery platform that also provides a framework for multivendor participation to encourage innovation and prevent artificially high pricing due to lack of competition.
Even if you are looking at NFV for a specific service today, the work you invest to deploy that service should save you time on your next service offering. That will only happen if you ask the right questions and choose a vendor that offers a complete service delivery platform proven for multiple service categories.
Proprietary hardware or vendor-agnostic?
There is a lot at stake in the NFV arena for service providers and for network solution providers. The incumbents, as usual, will try to lock in customers with proprietary hardware, but don’t compromise when it comes to interoperability. Keep looking until you find a solution that supports multivendor, industry-standard hardware, which means more control and less expense for the underlying network equipment. Similarly, you’ll want to look for solutions that are cloud-agnostic, such that they work in private or public cloud infrastructures and are highly portable between all types of VMs and provisioning frameworks.
This does not mean that there is no place for specialized hardware with NFV. Performance-accelerating appliances and blade implementations, however, should be optional and should be tied directly to services that warrant the additional underlying cost.
In the short term, an API puts your engineers back in control by allowing them to automate testing and reduce lab cycle times. Automated regression testing, for example, saves time and lets them focus on high-value, complex testing for your specific business and customer base. In the long term, no single company can provide every part of the solution or anticipate your future service requirements. A well thought-out and documented API also promotes integration with third-party software solutions and enables ISVs to introduce specialized solutions that drive the overall market.
Finally, while NFV solutions will undoubtedly bring a new set of management capabilities, they must also work with existing OSS/BSS systems. With billions of dollars invested in existing OSS/BSS systems, you’ll want to introduce an NFV platform that can integrate well in this area.
What level of visibility will you have?
The software nature of NFV solutions means that they can scale at an unprecedented rate. Holistic visibility will be critical — fine-grained, as well as high-level. Unfortunately, network monitoring and diagnostics are an afterthought for many solution providers. Thoroughly investigate the manageability and troubleshooting tools available with any NFV platform you consider. Diagnostics should be built into the solution from Day One, and the diagnostics should also work with third-party devices and software to enable centralized, comprehensive management. Audit capabilities, log analysis, event correlation, and system performance monitoring are just some of the features that will let your operations teams sleep a bit easier and reduce customer churn due to service availability.
What about SDN?
Software-defined networking (SDN) should be seen as complimentary to NFV, and forward-thinking solutions will leverage both technologies in pursuit of solving the operational and business-model challenges faced by service providers. SDN dramatically simplifies configuration and network-wide policy enforcement, while NFV is used to apply value-added network functions, such as security, load-balancing, VoIP processing, and more, to IP traffic. The combination of these two technologies truly unlocks the full potential of migrating to a software-based infrastructure.
NFV represents a tremendous opportunity for service providers to extend the economies of scale, flexibility, and performance historically associated with data center virtualization to their network infrastructure. Adopting NFV can open up new revenue opportunities, speed time to market, and create competitive differentiation for service providers. While these benefits are real and compelling, they will only be fully realized if you are thinking about a “platform” instead of a point NFV solution. It is not too early to jump in and learn more about NFV and the vendors that can help you take your first steps on a roadmap to streamlined service delivery.