Service providers invented network function virtualisation (NFV) as a way to bring the cloud to telecom. They wanted to replace single-vendor routers, firewalls and other closed devices with cloud technologies. With universal customer premises equipment (uCPE), NFV is the basis for bringing cloud to the edge of the network.
What is NFV and uCPE?
Most enterprises get their networking services using dedicated networking devices, which are also referred to as appliances. Examples include routers, firewalls, and SD-WAN end points. These devices are closed. They are built with proprietary hardware and software, and cannot be changed independently by the user or the operator. With NFV, we can replace these appliances with the best-of-breed software running on standard servers, just like on the cloud. Think of a smartphone and its apps. The smartphone provides an open platform, and users can load the apps of their choice based on their needs. The availability of an open platform means the time and cost of developing an app is significantly reduced. The result is fast and low-cost innovation. NFV brings this approach to the world of telecom.
The initial applications of NFV were in telco data centres, which took the form of large multi-user firewalls. With uCPE, we have brought these capabilities to the enterprise location. The initial applications are based on combining firewall and SD-WAN capabilities running on a standard low-cost server. The benefits include:
- The service provider or enterprise can pick the software that best meets its requirements, and change it later without changing the server. This is a huge advantage when hundreds of remote sites are involved.
- The service provider or enterprise can choose the server or servers that best meet its needs. They may pick a low-cost server for small offices, and a large server for hub sites. The servers can be from different manufacturers, and the user can pick multiple devices for a given application, thus creating competition and improving supply chain resilience.
Bringing the virtual to reality
All this sounds great, but once we break open a closed appliance, who puts it back together? There are several approaches:
- Do it yourself: Some large service providers and enterprises have the expertise to select, integrate and operate a multi-vendor system. For them, this virtualised architecture is no different from their cloud-centric applications. In fact, it uses many of the same tools used in the cloud such as OpenStack, Linux and KVM.
- Get help: Other service providers and enterprises may want the benefits of a cloud-native approach, but do not have the necessary skills and staff. For them, a good approach is to work with an integrator or value-added reseller that can do the initial selection and integration.
- Use a managed service: Many enterprises do not want to run their own network, but they want the benefits of a virtualised service, including availability of dynamic services under user control. They can offload the work of implementing a virtualised service, and still reap the benefits.
It’s all about edge cloud
We can see the immediate benefit of virtualisation for today’s communication services, but what about tomorrow’s applications? With uCPE providing open compute at the edge, enterprises can run their own applications alongside the networking software. For small offices, this means that a single server can replace a stack of networking devices, along with a dedicated server for local apps. This is a big reduction in space, power and cost. We sometimes refer to this approach as “store in a box”.
Even better, the enterprise can get that server as part of a managed service. In that case, the enterprise gets the benefits of managed telecommunications services as well as managed hosting, and it dose not have to worry about maintaining any hardware on site.
Typical applications might include surveillances, Wi-Fi controllers, point-of-sale software, and custom applications. Another class of apps is cloud extension. We are now seeing a big push for hybrid cloud, which includes compute resources at the enterprise site, driven by privacy and security concerns as well as the need to limit bandwidth and latency. In any event, there is a need to seamlessly combine centralised cloud resources with on-site compute.
Options such as Azure Stack can provide this type of extended cloud model, but it relies on a literal stack of dedicated servers. A better approach is something like IBM Cloud Satellite, which can run in virtual machines and coexist with other applications on uCPE hosts, as described above.
Open virtualisation is essential for enterprises
As enterprises look to move applications to the cloud, it is essential to look at the bigger picture. This includes communication services and edge compute. It is best to fully embrace the cloud principles of openness, multivendor and software-centric applications in all aspects of IT architecture, including at the enterprise site.