Breaking it down: Network Functions Virtualization (The Technology Insider Part 1)

Oct 2, 2013

I will admit it publicly. The first 10+ times I heard NFV or Network Functions Virtualization – I kept forgetting what the “F” stood for. I knew it had something to do with ‘cloud’ because of the word virtualization and the networks part was obvious. Simply put NFV is the ability to run any network function or application on a shared virtual machine. You may be thinking – what does that mean and why would you do it – it all relates to the biggest technology trend of the 2000s the emergence of cloud computing.

Cloud has happened to everyone. We may not realize it but in the last 5 years most of our music, photos, television and movies are somewhere else. When I look in my living room I see a cabinet filled to the brim with CDs and DVDs from a by-gone era that are rarely touched – and instead music is streamed from Rhapsody, Spotify and Pandora, movies from Netflix, TV from Hulu, and everything else is stored in the Cloud. My kids – ages 13, 11 & 9 — have zero desire to have their content physically with them. They could care less. This ‘new’ unattached attitude to physically ‘own’ content is driving telcom and more specifically NFV.

Let’s take this virtualization concept to a network environment. For me cloud means I can get my stuff where ever I am and on any device – meaning I can pull out my smart phone, my iPad, my computer – and show my mom the latest pictures of her grand kids. I am not limited to only having one type of photo album I put my photos in – and only that. I can also show her both photos and videos together – and am not just limited to showing her the kids in one format and on one device.

Today in a telecom network is a lot of equipment that can only do one thing. These machines are focused on what they are do and they do it really well – this is why telecom providers are considered so ‘trusted.’ Back in the days of landline phones even when the power was out you could always make a call. These machines run alone with dedicated resources. These machines are made by various different vendors and speak various languages or ‘protocols’ to exchange information with each other when necessary. Some don’t even talk at all – they are just set-up and then left to run. So, every day your operator is running a mini United Nations and corralling that to get you to access all of your stuff. But it is a United Nations with a fixed number of seats, and with only a specific nation allowed to occupy a specific seat, with the seat left unused if there was a no-show. That is a lot of underutilized equipment that is tough and expensive to manage. It also has a shelf life of 15 years… while your average store-bought computer is doubling in speed every 18 months.

Virtualizing the network means the ability to run a variety of applications (or functions) on a standard piece of computing equipment, rather than on dedicated, specialized processors and equipment, to drive lower costs (more value), more re-use of the equipment between applications (more sharing), and a greater ability to change what is using the equipment to meet the changing user needs (more responsiveness). This has already started in enterprises as a way to control IT costs and improve the performance and of course way greener.

To give this a sports analogy – imagine if in American football instead of having specialists in all the different positions (QB, LB, RB, etc), you had a bunch of generalists who could play any position – you might only need a 22 or 33 man squad (2 or 3 players for every position) rather than the normal squad of 53. The management of your team would be much simpler as ‘one player fits all’ positions. It is easy to see how this would benefit a service provider – simplifying the procurement and management of the network elements (team) and giving them the ability to do more, with less.

While I understand as a participant in the larger telecommunications industry why this is important – it really is a massive change in approach and as all major changes, will lead to benefits not yet discovered. In every meeting I usually am thinking to myself privately (and sometimes I say it ) –YEAH, but what does this mean for me? One thing it means is that cool applications can be deployed more quickly and use the network to their advantage. This translates into the ability to get your media, content and experiences to you, wherever you are, whenever you want, and with the quality you need. Because of the complex network structure today – it may take months or even years to develop and test a new service – in a virtualized world this could be cut down to weeks or even days.

The other side benefit is keeping up with the overall network traffic this cloud is creating. If I agree to have all my ‘stuff’ stored across town or across the nation or globe, I better have the best way to get to it, or I won’t want to keep my stuff there anymore. The network is the essential link in a cloud world. If the connection is not constant, perfect and on demand the model will fail. So by operators virtualizing their own networks it enables virtualized Cloud services themselves to grow and expand — really a mind bender huh?

I have been arguing lately that in a ‘cloudified’ world an ultra-broadband connection will become something akin to air. We must have it to live. If you don’t believe me –when you walk out of your office today, look around at what people are doing – guarantee most are glued to their devices. Whether you then get in your car or take the metro home – same story. When I lost power in at my home last summer for 3 days my kids biggest concern was not the sweltering heat of a Virginia summer or the food melting in a now warm refrigerator – but how long I thought it would be before they could power their devices and get to their stuff. NFV and its equal twin (SDN – which I will discuss in my next blog) are very much a part of making sure we have ‘data connectivity sustainability’ – uninhibited, unlimited access to our information now and forever – and, when they have taken hold, the era of anytime anywhere communications will have truly arrived.

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About Wendy Zajack

I live a dual life. I live between two worlds – the normal one and one that is filled with acronyms, buzz words and network diagrams. I sit silently at parties when people are complaining about their mobile coverage and I don’t let on that I know it is tied to a big radio hanging off the tower down the street on top of the fire station.

I have been in telecom PR for 15 years. I have become accustomed to the strange language and terms like wave-division-multiplexing, RAN and latency, have become my common work parlance. But the other part of my job is explaining this technology to people who don’t understand it as an insider. I love this part because it is the most challenging – breaking down something I barely understand and trying to make it simple, relevant.

I have three kids, a husband and two cats and live in a typical American suburb in Northern Virginia about 25 miles from Washington, DC. I have been in high-tech communications for longer than I would like to admit. I will just say when I started in PR we were still using a fax machine and fedex – and I am happy to see the world moving on to other methods!

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