The best thing that ever happened to servers is about to hit the network, too

Only a handful of companies use it at this point, but network functions virtualization is poised to help service providers in a huge way

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A new technology promises to help communications service providers deploy network services faster and more cost-effectively than traditional methods. Known as network functions virtualization (NFV), it involves taking certain activities usually performed by routers and switches, and giving those functions to specialized software to control instead.

The result: faster service provisioning, says Roy Chua, partner at SDNCentral, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Web-based resource site with approximately 50,000 members. “If you want to deploy a firewall service for a customer, you can do that in the software-orchestration layer. By pressing a button, you create a software-firewall instance and use software-defined networking to plumb it into the path of the network traffic.” Aside from the button push, no human intervention is required. Compare that to traditional service provisioning, which involves network administrators configuring servers, appliances and other elements of IT infrastructure. NFV reduces a carrier’s manpower costs and cuts provisioning times from hours to minutes.

He notes that NFV also enables service providers to save money because the technology lets them use basic, inexpensive network hardware instead of pricey, sophisticated hardware. Software takes care of the functions that used to belong to those complicated routers, servers and appliances. Carriers could pass the savings on to customers. “The thought is if you go standard and virtualize the network functions, everyone benefits,” Chua says.

The bottleneck problem

One concern about NFV is the potential bottleneck effect: by putting all the network functions into software, a carrier could find that its network isn’t as fast as it used to be. Data streams would clog up at the software, which may struggle to process so much information. But Chua explains that NFV proponents are working on solutions. For one thing, software libraries with prebuilt data and code are available. They help boost network performance. Hardware plays a role as well. “There are vendors that offer specialized network interface cards that go into standard servers and provide a hardware acceleration boost to help you get back to what you had with proprietary hardware,” Chua says.

Carriers and communications technology vendors are developing an NFV standard as a group within the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Other organizations are plowing ahead with their own implementations. Google, for instance, announced in April that Andromeda, its network virtualization stack, would power two Google Compute Engine zones in the U.S. and Western Europe. These engines consist of virtual servers and information-storage systems that companies can use to host applications, online services and other technology-intensive offerings. NFV is an important aspect of Andromeda, according to a blog post by Google distinguished engineer Amin Vahdat.

And whereas the bottleneck problem could slow some NFV-enhanced networks, Google’s implementation actually speeds things up. “Customers… will automatically see major gains in throughput,” Vahdat says. In a speed test, Google found that the Andromeda-enhanced engines ran much faster than non-Andromeda Engines, reaching speeds over 5 Gbps, compared to about 1.8 Gbps.

NFV is coming to a carrier near you, judging from Chua’s comments. He likens the technology to server virtualization, which quickly proved its worth for businesses that manage numerous servers. “Everyone sees the benefits of going into standardized servers and virtualization. On the networking side, I think people are saying it’s time, and the technology is here. We just need a little push to deal with the potential problems. I think that’s where we are with NFV.”

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Image via SDNCentral

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