NFV Challenges and Opportunities

 In Alten Blogs

2013 has been a year where the networking industry saw early NFV POC implementations, initial deployments and an opportunity to evaluate results. Experiences from the initial POCs, limited R&D and trial deployments and several in-house projects has brought to light some new challenges and gaps to overcome. It also validated earlier promised and some new opportunities that NFV service model would bring in.

There are several components that make up a generic NFV Solution – a VNF, a VNF manager, NFVI, a VIM manager, Orchestration manager and a service management layer that integrates into existing management systems. The NFV solution space is serviced by several vendors – System or Solution integrators, VNF providers, Cloud and overlay management solution providers and NFVI infrastructure providers. These vendors are forming their own eco system of value chain consists of other enabling technologies such as DPI and DPDK. Each one of these vendor solutions is having its own evolutionary time line and maturity cycle. But most of these milestones are well aligned to bring together a reasonably good and integrated first generation NFV solutions. The question is – given the state of several of these vendor solutions is the NFV technology subject to the similar adoption trends as in popular “hype cycle” pattern. The answer is not exactly, since NFV inherits some of the already available components that are proven, mature and are in existence in generic Cloud solutions. But NFV is very different in some ways and has some unique problems to solve to fully exploit the potential of this service model.

The cloud based service delivery model is well proven outside the networking services. But network based services are different in one impacting way – per user session or per user flow processing requirements could be very high in deployments. For example a VNF mapped to a single VM may be required to process a single tunnel traffic of several MBPS to GBPS which cannot be always load balanced in the upstream to multiple VMs.

Despite auto-scaling of VMs, each VM which hosts a portion or a complete VNF must be capable of “scale” – definitely for certain categories of high data path intensive VNFs. It is well known fact that VNFs when moved from bare metal to hypervisor environment will degrade on performance and scale. Some NFV solutions initiatives are considering technologies such as DPDK, OVDK and SR-IOV. These could be augmented by splitting VNFs across multiple VMs.

So there are some problems to overcome in maturing the overall NFV services and bring its maturity on par with application services that are currently hosted in the cloud. The management solution gaps are there as well but they are easier to solve than the challenges posed by scale and performance of VNFs. But these problems are not necessarily show stoppers. All the technology pieces are there – DPDK, SR-IOV, OVDK. Given right priorities and phasing in an NFV solution implementation plan it is very practical and within reach to implement a very efficient and future proof NFV implementation.

What does this mean to the NFV technology cycle? It is still susceptible to it but less pronounced. The following is a projection of NFV maturity cycle, contrasting to the popular “hype cycle” new technologies are subject to.

One of the key benefits of addressing the scaling problem is that it expands the market reach for the service providers. The price points would make it attractive for SMEs and SOHOs to adopt high touch service which previously were expensive and costly through physical hardware appliances. Virtualization and managed outsourced services concept was there during telecom bubble era which saw products with virtual routers, managed firewall, VPN and IP services switches. Those were again based on custom ASICs, custom hardware and came with high price points – not a good option for SMEs and broader market reach. NFV with scale will make this concept a reality and open up opportunities for Service providers to provide high touch services to SMEs and SOHOs. The key to unlocking the future potential of NFV relies more so on the scaling of VNF than the NFV management solutions.

There are benefits for all around for consumers, vendors and solution integrators. Consumers benefit from lower price points, custom bundled services, new generation of high end services. System and Solution integrators benefit from opportunities to customize generic frameworks for specific NFV architectures and building value add custom tools. Vendors benefit with new cloud based scalable VNF offerings, new pipelined and distributed VNF designs and VNF and orchestration management solutions.

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