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What is network functions virtualization?

The need for NFV

Network functions virtualization (NFV) is widely described as the biggest game changer in the telecom industry. Service providers everywhere are embracing NFV to enable speed and agility, creating the ability to pump out services at an unprecedented rate.

Today’s application climate consists of a whirlwind of services running on various connected devices, which store, transmit and stream massive amounts of data. Contemporary hardware-defined networks cannot hold the weight of these applications, but NFV, combined with software-defined networking can.

The benefits of NFV

Though still in its inception, the basic idea behind NFV is to decouple software from hardware. It is to run network functions, like a firewall or encryption, for instance, on virtual machines (VMs). As soon as the network functions are managed by a hypervisor, services originally installed on hardware can be performed on software. And unlike proprietary hardware, network functions can be installed on virtual machines in weeks rather than months.

With this technology, network administrators do not have to invest in the installation and maintenance of expensive proprietary hardware to set up a service chain of network-connected devices. Rather, they can invest in inexpensive nodes to run virtual machines that perform various functions. Whenever a user needs a new network function, service providers can spin up a VM for that function automatically.

Moreover, network administrators can spend less time managing data centers, thereby lowering capital expenses (CAPEX) and operating expenses (OPEX). If an application running on a VM machine demands additional bandwidth, for instance, an administrator can offload part of the work onto a different VM on the same server. Resources are no longer restricted to a narrow data center, but are spread throughout the network to boost the productivity of internal operations. For this reason, it’s not just operators, but a host of industries who are welcoming NFV with open arms.

NFV versus SDN

NFV and software defined networking (SDN) are two overlapping though distinct concepts circulating in many IT departments. NFV provides the flexibility and agility to deploy network functions. SDN consists of a chain of automated network objects, like firewalls and routers. It provides a centralized way to manage the network with ease, including transport networks, data center networks and a network of services like security functions.

In some instances, SDN will be linked to server virtualization, which connects virtual network functions. NFV may or may not be involved. The intent of NFV is part of a larger initiative to decouple software from hardware. While both NFV and SDN are comrades in arms in regards to virtualization, they are pursuing different ends.

The future of NFV

The transition to NFV will not be the result of a quick flip of a virtual switch. It is an evolving process with several intermediates steps. There will come an era when native and virtualized functions are integrated. Management systems will have to handle native and virtualized functions simultaneously. During this transition period, key performance indicators (KPIs) will play a pivotal role in determining what and when something should be virtualized.

While still in the developmental phase, NFV has much to offer the telecom industry. As this technology develops, the network will become an infrastructure that deploys functions automatically with NFV serving as the backbone. Service providers can save time and money with this infrastructure, but it won’t be built overnight. Management systems will have to be deployed to accompany a hybrid of native and virtual functions. Business pioneers interested in NFV ought to consult a technical solutions provider to determine if they have the systems necessary to run both virtual and nonvirtual network functions.


Nathan Cranford
Nathan Cranford
Nathan Cranford joined RCR Wireless News as a Technology Writer in 2017. Prior to his current position, he served as a content producer for GateHouse Media, and as a freelance science and tech reporter. His work has been published by a myriad of news outlets, including COEUS Magazine, dailyRx News, The Oklahoma Daily, Texas Writers Journal and VETTA Magazine. Nathan earned a bachelor’s from the University of Oklahoma in 2013. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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