Network functions virtualization (NFV) refers to the process of separating network functions from hardware to create a virtualized network that can run on commodity hardware, allowing networks to be more pliable and more cost-effective. At the core of NFV are virtual network functions (VNFs) that handle specific network functions like firewalls or load balancing. Individual VNFs can be connected or combined together as building blocks to create a fully virtualized environment. VNFs run on virtual machines (VMs) on top of the hardware networking infrastructure. There can be multiple VMs on one hardware box using all of the box’s resources.
Cost: The Real Driver of Network Virtualization
Network virtualization and VNFs development result from service providers working to speed up the deployment of new network services while reducing operating costs and capital expenses.
IT virtualization technologies appealed to these providers as a way to achieve those goals. On its face, virtualizing a network means reducing the scale, diversity, and cost of the hardware to only what is necessary; and using software for network functions, so if business needs change, providers can easily update the software instead of the whole system’s hardware.
The problems of the hardware network go beyond the cost of buying a new box, which at the time was an expensive proprietary product. The physical act of upgrading each piece of hardware was an immense drain on resources. Truck rolls, where hardware was delivered to the data center and people were paid to physically install new hardware, racked up costs and took up a lot of time. When virtualizing networks became feasible, providers turned to them to cut out additional costs.
Expense and revenue are reasons for innovation and change. The shift from several pieces of hardware, each performing their single function, to a single piece of hardware with several VMs within it, each performing the actions of VNFs, solved expense problems. Virtualization helped the development of 5G technology, which will bring incalculable amounts of revenue to existing and new markets.
Those service providers founded the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) in 1988, and in November 2012 they created a working group for NFV called the ETSI Industry Specification Group for NFV (ETSI ISG NFV). Within a year, ETSI published papers on NFV use cases and basic requirements. In 2014, they released a paper defining NFV architecture. In the paper, ETSI heavily features VNFs as the foot soldiers of NFV.
ETSI continues to innovate VNFs with new projects. These projects established the standards that shaped the way developers and providers create virtualized networks, so networks made and provided by different companies can communicate, giving users the most fluid experience possible.
NFV original reference architectural framework. Source: ETSI
The Linux Foundation announced its open source reference platform, the Open Platform for NFV Project (OPNFV) in September 2014. OPNFV works closely with ETSI to push for consistent open standards for NFV-based VNFs. OPNFV and ETSI even co-located their community testing events in 2018.
Updated April 2019