Is NFV Overblown? 4 Things to Consider
FEB 22, 2018 00:34 AM
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Is NFV Overblown? 4 Things to Consider

by Anna Johansson
Network Function Virtualization (NFV) is a platform designed to change how carriers deliver services. In theory, it allows them to be more agile and deliver new services faster. At the same time, fundamental flaws in the architecture and the massive investment required to implement the technology could make NFV less valuable than the hype would suggest.
NFV in a Nutshell
NFV is still an emerging platform, but it’s one that’s being piloted (and in some cases offered to customers) by major network service providers (NSPs). The idea is to take core network functions, including SD-WAN and firewalls, and deliver them as virtual appliances. These virtual appliances can then run on premises (using off the shelf hardware and virtual customer premises equipment—vCPE) or in a hosted context, running at the carrier’s core data centers.
There are some significant benefits to this arrangement. For example, using a shared server instead of dedicated appliances reduces the total hardware costs of almost any location. And with fewer appliances to launch and maintain, operational costs also decrease. Additionally, once established, the NFV model allows you to get to market faster with a revenue-generating service.
Key Challenges
Before you get too excited about the benefits of NFV, there are a few key considerations you should bear in mind. NFV isn’t the sure bet its proponents make it out to be, as it comes with some significant challenges:
  1. Dependency on customer context. First, understand that the resource utilization of virtual network functions (VNFs) is going to depend almost entirely on the customer’s individual context. If, for example, a client sends too much encrypted traffic over a firewall, it’s going to require extra steps to decrypt and analyze that traffic, consuming far more resources in the process. This makes NFV less predictable, and dependent on individual customer actions and needs.  
  2. The need for bigger infrastructure. In the NFV model, multiple VNFs share a single host infrastructure. If one VNF increases without warning, extra resources need to be allocated to it dynamically. Otherwise, it could bog down the entire system. This issue is a fixable one, but it represents a serious disadvantage for the setup. You’ll need to increase the size, complexity, or elasticity of your infrastructure, either incorporating risky and complicated processes or underutilizing your hardware. 
  3. The risk of memory degradation. If you’re running VNFs on a physical CPE, there’s a chance that you’ll experience cross-VNF processing, and eventually degrade the memory of your appliance. SD-WAN and routers don’t consume many resources, but URL filtering and anti-malware functions are highly sensitive to your traffic mix. Sizing CPEs is both important and complex, requiring constant upgrades. 
  4. Dependency on vendor quality. NSPs don’t have much power to control third-party VNFs, since VNF software and configuration exist inside a virtual black box. Vendors are going to keep tabs on their management consoles and APIs, which means you may not have direct transparency or the control you need for centralized management. Multivendor partnerships and coordination are also unlikely to materialize.
Alternatives and the Future
Ultimately, while NFV can offer some incremental benefits (thanks to virtual instead of physical appliances), its execution will be an operational nightmare, and an expensive investment for most NSPs. One key alternative could be network function cloudification (NFCL), which deconstructs the appliance-centric structure of NFV. Individual functions can be broken down into discrete services, so SD-WAN, firewalls, and routers can all exist as separate channels. Since they can be deployed almost anywhere and scaled efficiently, they represent a more cost-efficient and less problematic alternative to NFVs. However, no solution is perfect, and as the years progress, we’ll likely see better and better platforms available for NSPs and customers alike.
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