Let’s start with what you do know. Enterprise IT embraced virtualization years ago as a vehicle for accelerating application development and deployment, and reducing capital and operational expenses. The advent of network functions virtualization (NFV) is now happening among network providers for similar reasons. Providers want to bring new services to market in order to stay competitive, and NFV is helping them do it, while also setting the stage for lower long-term costs. Today, the transition to NFV is beginning at the edges of the network and moving inward, and it’s happening quickly. The rate of NFV adoption has taken some by surprise, and the industry is experiencing disruption that goes beyond the technology shift itself.
The who, what, where, when and why of NFV adoption
Much of the angst around NFV stems from unanswered questions about who will ultimately “own” the responsibility for virtualized software appliances that perform the functions formerly carried out via proprietary networking gear. NFV comes with an open-system, open-management approach that creates the flexibility providers need in order to respond quickly to customers’ changing service expectations. However, the open nature of NFV is fundamentally different from the established norms of the long-standing proprietary networking industry.
Take, for example, a typical upgrade process at a major service provider. In the traditional model, the provider has to have a new version of a hardware device shipped and installed even to test a solution. If multiple vendors are involved, then multiple hardware devices are required. Once a vendor is chosen, providers must spend time physically installing new equipment while simultaneously decommissioning the obsolete hardware. This can take months. The speed with which new features reach end users through application improvements is modest, to say the least.
By contrast, a flexible NFV environment lets the provider download and test software appliances on existing commodity servers, and then do the same tests with a competitive software solution before making a final deployment decision. The underlying infrastructure, which leverages commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, makes it far easier and quicker to make upgrades. The scale and scope of expansion moves from thousands of pieces of equipment deployed via expensive physical man power to tens of thousands of virtual machines (VMs) provisioned via a software download. End users get the applications they want more quickly, and the provider retains its competitive edge and financial advantage in the market.
However, one anxiety-generating question in shifting models from proprietary equipment to software appliances, is who is responsible for NFV implementation and operational management? Telecom staff, server administrators, virtualization specialists, networking administrators?
Where will these NFV experts come from?
There is a philosophical divide brewing between switching-oriented staff and IT teams, who already are highly experienced with VM management. Who will drive the planning, deployment, and management of NFV? Network providers operate complex operations, and many diverse roles will be required to successfully manage the next-generation infrastructure – it’s possible some of these roles have not even been envisioned to date. Like it or not, virtualization and networking administrators will, in fact, be essential to the industry’s NFV future, but the transition will inevitably be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
After all, there are difficult technical issues to address regarding how the new virtualized networking solutions will work in high-throughput environments, where almost every application is mission-critical and anything short of real-time delivery is unacceptable. Enterprise IT faced a similar evolution in the adoption of server virtualization. Adoption began first in test and development, where missteps wouldn’t interrupt critical operations. Years later, production workloads began moving to virtualized infrastructure; eventually, it was the norm. The same is holding true for virtualizing network devices. For example, we’re seeing most current deployments of NFV for capabilities like firewall applications, rather than mission-critical end-user services. Slowly, NFV use will move closer to the core, but providers might never be 100-percent virtualized, just as enterprise IT isn’t always 100-percent virtualized.
In terms of who will ultimately “own” the future of NFV, the reality is that the industry will see an evolution in roles and responsibilities as providers transition the networking infrastructures over time and develop a new personnel model along the way. The pace of NFV market acceptance and implementation will, of course, determine how quickly the lines between enterprise IT and core carrier groups will blur.
NFV will break down barriers
For the same reasons commodity hardware, virtualized servers, and commercially available management solutions enabled IT to evolve from slow-moving, proprietary data processing shops to a core business asset of most enterprises, NFV has the potential to serve as the backbone of innovation, speed, and agility for service providers. Though still in it its infancy, all NFV practitioners, architects, and executives should look to leverage hard-earned lessons in the transition from proprietary hardware to today’s prolific virtualized data center infrastructures. The transition was a challenge, but it paid exponential dividends.