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Challenges that need to be overcome before NFV can be commercialized

In our last blog post on our three-part series on Network Functions Virtualization, commonly known as NFV, let’s look at what’s holding us back from commercializing NFV.

We know that as carrier revenue growth flattens, the cost to grow network footprint and capacity will become unmanageable.  In fact we are already seeing that adding subscribers as businesses and consumers shift their subscriptions from one company to the next is driving marketing costs higher.  In the face of saturation, carriers need to take a good look at their network operations to drive costs down and continue profitability.

Over the next five years, carriers will be controlling their CapEx and OpEx costs as they increasingly shift their spending from expensive networking hardware to software-based solutions.  By 2018, software-based networking solutions will have taken a significant share of traditional carrier networking hardware market which was about $150 billion in 2013.  NFV will be a highly disruptive factor for many legacy service provider equipment suppliers, carriers and enterprises.

Carriers see the need for increased network flexibility and application awareness as key to remaining competitive.  Further, they must drastically reduce the time to market for new revenue generating features by breaking the bond equipment suppliers have over them with proprietary designs that are expensive and slow to innovate.

But what needs to be overcome before NFV can be commercialized?  Here are several considerations:

Portability / Interoperability: To define a unified interface which decouples software instances from the underlying hardware as represented by virtual machines and their hypervisors.  This has to work with all sorts of VMs e.g. from VMware or Virtual Box to a kernel based one from another provider.

Performance Trade-off: A probable decrease in performance is to be taken into account which is inevitable because of moving from specialized hardware (e.g. acceleration engines) designed for one specific purpose to a more generalized industry standard hardware.  The key is to minimize its impact by, say, using a hypervisor that can scale / parallelize it to more available hardware resources and take advantage of numbers.

Migration and coexistence of legacy platforms: NFVs would need to coexist with operator’s legacy equipment and be compatible with their existing functions for a gradual and seamless take over.  Legacy systems can’t converge until NFV provides a solid migration path.

Automation:  Scalability of NFV is strictly tied to automation.  Anything less would produce the same sort of issues that operators already face when scaling physical infrastructures.  This should cover a consistent architecture of orchestration to control the entire VNF with software.

Security and stability: More software is generally translated into “more prone to security attacks”.  So operators need to be assured that this migration is not brought at the cost of security and thereby reliability of their services.  The same faith needs to be extended with running a variety of heterogeneous appliances from different hardware vendors.  Tightly integrated security software is needed to cover that ground.

Simplicity and integration:  Integrating multiple virtual appliances from different vendors seamlessly with servers and hypervisors which need to be controlled via standard software interfaces is a daunting task.  On top of this, the user interface of the software must remain simple enough to chain with other appliances to provide another NFV service.

A proof of concept needs to address most of the above issues to be able to make it into any production environment.

NFV is a key priority for carriers and not only are tier 1 carriers supportive of this software-based approach, but they are leading efforts to standardize and implement solutions over the upcoming years.   NFV is in several carrier trials and many vendors have committed to key NFV focused roadmaps.

But for these initial adoption efforts to come to fruition, these challenges need to be addressed in the trials being implemented this year and in the production deployments over the next few years.