Because software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) seem to have captured the market’s attention at roughly the same time, some industry pundits have been quick to pit the two technologies against each other. Although the technologies are certainly different, the most appropriate discussion is that they are complementary to each other; these two are friends, not enemies.
What one must first realize is that SDN and NFV have similar goals, but their origins are different, which leads to the opposing comparisons. As both initiatives evolve, we’re likely to hear more discussion about their complementary natures.
NFV and SDN: common goals, common enablers
The telco world spawned NFV, while SDN is a child of the IT realm. Despite these different roots, both technologies are designed to: increase flexibility, decrease costs, support scalability, and speed the introduction of new services. Both SDN and NFV are likely drivers for innovation in telecommunications, networking and enterprise data centers. And both owe their existence to similar market forces, including:
- Better processor capability: Processors are now capable enough to deploy network functions on commercial off-the-shelf hardware, and those COTS investments are hosting multicore, virtualization, and hypervisor functions on single processors.
- Easier connectivity: IP networks have made it easier to connect to network nodes, including disaggregated nodes, at required speeds. Because of this, users can separate the control and data planes, clearing a path for SDN. This connectivity also allows for separation of the media server and its individual parts.
- Virtualization maturity: Both IT and telecom have moved their organizations beyond leveraging virtualization for just server consolidation. Virtualization has passed the point where it’s mainly used in testing and development roles. In fact, a majority of IT decision-makers are now relying on virtual servers for production workloads. Likewise, service providers and network equipment suppliers are migrating away from the traditional, closed, and costly service development model to a framework that is open, lower-cost, faster, and enterprise-cloud-ready.
Moving equipment from the central office to the data center transfers it to the realm of IT. Network infrastructure will no longer be monolithic, dedicated platforms, but applications running in virtual environments that need to be monitored and managed like other applications with SLAs and performance objectives. Because of the demands on a telecom network, the difference is the applications are real-time and always on, versus bursty and transactional, which creates a whole new set of challenges for equipment vendors, but more importantly, the whole ecosystem pushes NFV in general.
NFV and ‘Thinking Like an IT Guy’
By allowing multiple capabilities to run from a common platform, NFV will lower network operators’ capital and operating expenses, cut power consumption, and reduce reliance on pricey equipment. Operators will gain cloud-based options, and network functionality will become software-only and COTS-enabled.
Those advancements will clear the way for NFV to increase network efficiency by using IT concepts; already OpenStack is being proposed for orchestration.
As for what comes next, network administrators would be smart to take a page from IT. Learning appropriate service-level key performance indicators for chained applications, interdependencies between traffic demand, service orchestration, analytics that can provide performance insight, policy and charging requirements and the importance of data-plane performance are all a good start as the network integrates NFV. SDN implies a cloud-based delivery model, and in turn, network operators must take the same approach to delivering new services. In this modern landscape, network operators’ customers are already used to virtualization from their work in the IT realm.
The hype whirling around SDN and NFV has focused on a false either/or scenario, when the fact of the matter is that NFV is a piece on the path to a full SDN. IT and telco teams might be prone to disputes due to the natural differences of their networks, but the technologies they’ve spurred are actually complementary. Rather than competition, the market should expect long-term co-existence between SDN and NFV.