One of the primary enablers of Public Cloud Providers’ dramatic economies of scale is their fanatical devotion to homogeneity at the hardware level. Walk into one of their data centers and you’ll see identical racks of identical equipment – with an emphasis on identical. (Of course, Private Clouds should also aspire to the same level of homogeneity as well.) This homogeneity also extends to the network hardware, as you might expect. But when you connect those switches and routers to the telecommunication providers’ equipment, at that point all bets are off.
In contrast to Cloud best practice, the underlying telco infrastructure is a mishmash of dedicated, often proprietary types of hardware that go by a regular alphabet soup of designations: BNG, CG-NAT, MME, SGSN, RNC, SBCs, and more. This hodgepodge is expensive and slow to implement, and limits the flexibility of the telco to support its Cloud Service Provider (CSP) customers, as well as any enterprise customer with dynamic communications requirements – which seems to be everyone these days.
To rise to these challenges, a consortium of telco carriers and vendors have put their heads together and hammered out Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) – a specification for abstracting network hardware in order to move the control of network functions to software. The benefits of NFV for the telcos include reduced equipment costs and power consumption, faster time to market, and greater agility in providing diversified services across customer types and geographies. NFV also promises greater support for multi-tenancy at the network layer, which will drive the above business benefits to any CSP who is offering multitenant IaaS to their customers.
NFV is similar to Software-Defined Networking (SDN) in many ways, but is in reality quite complementary. To understand the differences, it’s important to get a feel for the types of network functions that NFV is trying to virtualize. Such network functions include switching functions, mobile network functions, service assurance and SLA monitoring functions, policy control and security functions, etc. Once the telco has abstracted these basic functions, they can then chain them in order to deliver more complex network services.
The big win for the telcos, however, depends upon NFV orchestration, which automates the ability to instantiate, monitor, repair, and bill for the network functions and chained services – in a hardware-independent manner. On the one hand, this hardware independence leads to greater agility and economies of scale – but perhaps the most important benefit is that the telcos are finally following essential Cloud best practice. Welcome to the club, people!