The exponential increase in the size and complexity of network infrastructures over the past decade has made it imperative for telecom operators to deploy solutions that provide flexibility in traffic management and also improve network efficiency. To this end, network functions virtualisation (NFV) has emerged as a promising solution that greatly enhances the effectiveness and flexibility of network services by decoupling the functioning of a network from its physical infrastructure, thereby making it more efficient and agile.

NFV transforms networks into more open and programmable frameworks with the help of a centralised control layer. This helps optimise network resources, resulting in reduced network congestion and enhanced network user capacity. Using virtualised infrastructure, operators are able to reduce both their operating as well as capital expenses, thereby increasing profitability. While hardware costs are reduced by using shared servers rather than hosting dedicated appliances,opera
tional costs are minimised by having lesser equipment to maintain.

Moreover, by obviating the need to invest in high-priced proprietary hardware, NFV makes it easier for operators and enterprises to launch new services and scale up their existing networks. With NFV, service providers can also deploy various network functions, such as firewall or encryption on virtual machines, thereby enabling faster and cost-efficient delivery of on-demand applications, with minimal disruption.

Enterprises lead in NFV adoption

Enterprises across various vertical ssuch as banking, financial services and insurance, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, education, IT-enabled services, the government and defence are aggressively deploying NFV-based architecturesto improve network efficiency through a centralised management, enhanced IT agility, reduced service deployment time and offer customised applications. NFV is also helping enterprises automate network services such as firewall rules, security groups and load balancers.

Over the past few years, enterprises have started deploying cloud-based NFV solutions to scale up their networking infrastructure, in order to meet increased workloads and reduce the cost that will be incurred in procuring additional hardware appliances for supporting new network services. The increased adoption of cloudbased NFV is also helping enterprises enhance their ability to deliver more network function performance with lesser data centre rack space, power and cooling requirements. Going forward, businesses are expected to move towards bring-your-ownlicence and pay-as-you-go cloud infrastructure NFV models to derive enhanced value from network virtualisation.

Business case for telecom operators

Telecom operators are also actively leveraging NFV to optimise their networks, improve service delivery times, increase ARPUs and reduce capital and operational expenditures. By minimising the footprint of hardware deployment needed to support services, virtualisation enables operators to significantly reduce the time-to-market for new services compared to legacy systems. Moreover, NFV gives operators the flexibility to dynamically increase the network capacity on an as-needed basis. With virtualised networks, operators are, therefore, able to deliver enhanced user experience and leverage new business opportunities emanating from this digital revolution.

NFV also helps improve the security of the network infrastructure by enabling operators to add capabilities that are not so cost-effective in a traditional hardware-based environment. For example, service providers can roll out tap-as-a-service capabilities, allowing them to see real-time traffic flows on more parts of the network than previously possible. This allows operators to gain a real-time network view, which is useful for detecting network anomalies and increasing security.

Virtualisation allows telecom service providers to deliver additional features to customers such as virtual firewalls, storage and expanded bandwidth in an on-demand model. In this way, service providers can employ payment models that are more in line with utilities than the traditional telecom companies. This “pay-as-you-go” approach helps improve the overall customer experience by providing more transparency in service costs and giving users the flexibility to choose their preferred features in the service package. Enterprise customers stand to benefit immensely from this arrangement, as they are able to incorporate numerous cloud and virtualised features from a single telecom service provider.

Enabling role in IoT deployment

The burgeoning proliferation of IoT devices requires a concomitant increase in the network infrastructure to handle the data explosion that comes with it. This is, however, easier said than done. Since IoT devices are globally distributed, the network infrastructure should also be able to reach all these globally distributed devices. This calls for a huge investment in infrastructure by any single service provider.
Since users subscribe to many different service providers, and are globally distributed, it is impossible for each service provider to have separate network to serve its own subscribers. Moreover, with the emergence of new technologies, the hardware becomes quickly obsolete, leading to huge recurring costs for operators in constantly trying to upgrade and modernise.

Another major challenge stems from the need to constantly reconfigure networks to accommodate the changing traffic characteristics such as bandwidth and delay requirements. The security and service provisioning policies change dynamically with the addition of new business applications. Similarly, packet handling policies have to be modified and high layer processing incorporated to cater to the newly added traffic. As a result, the location of firewalls, load balancers and other special purpose gateways have to be changed based on new policies.

It is prohibitively expensive for network operators to execute these changes in an allhardware environment. NFV-based solutions can significantly help them in this regard. Using NFV, all the network elements can be made programmable with a single standard user interface. This will enable them to be controlled remotely from any of the chosen central locations. Moreover, all network operations can be automated and the role of a certain network element can be easily changed by redefining the network function of that element. Hence, going forward, IoT will require greater reliance on virtualised networks to handle the significant increase in data travelling across networks, as well as more advanced automation to remove the human-related latency that could render such connected devices inoperable.

Catalyst in 5G roll-out

NFV is poised to play a critical role in 5G deployment by enabling higher workloads and making hardware management easier. NFV will allow independent scaling and deployment of services to meet the throughput and processing requirements of different 5G applications. Moreover, NFV will help operators scale easily to support 5G expansion and configure their networks to allow a seamless interaction among different services inside the core network. According to industry experts, NFV has the potential to reduce operators’ capital expenditures on 5G networks by up to 40 per cent.

Meanwhile, experts contend that NFV will also allow operators to improve their incident response times asthe technology offers more resilience against the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Besides, NFV will allow a 5G physical network to be divided into various virtual networks capable of supporting multiple radio access networks across different customer segments and environments.

Virtualisation of data centre operations

Data centres are under increasing pressure to meet the needs of continuously growing data traffic, while supporting the proliferation of next-generation technologies such as IoT and 5G. Moreover, cloud computing and mobile device integration arestraining data centre networks. Traditionally, data centre operators have deployed a variety of expensive and proprietary network devices to meet the ever-increasing data processing requirements, while ensuring a seamless connectivity, better performance and security.

Of late, data centre operators have started deploying NFV-based architectures to make networks more flexible, allowing data centres to dynamically relocate, reconfigure and scale network functions and services in near real-time on commodity hardware. NFV also enables data centre operators to perform segmentation using virtual devices rather than the dedicated hardware, thereby decreasing the purchasing, powering, cooling and racking requirements of data centres. NFV also makes data centres more agile, simplify device provisioning and cross-pollinate networking skills with operation skills. NFV minimises the number of devices required for operations to rack and cable, thereby saving of time spent on the purchase, shipment, installation and configuration of special hardware. This results in quicker time-to-delivery of service.

The potential applications and services that could be deployed in an NFV-based data centre are wide-ranging, including mobile services such as evolved packet core, network address translation, virtual firewalls, domain name service, intrusion detection services, load balancing and application delivery control.

Challenges in NFV adoption

By decoupling the software implementation of network functions from the underlying proprietary hardware, NFV promises significant improvements with regard to network performance and cost optimisation. However, the transition towards full virtualised networks is currently fraught with challenges. A major concern with the adoption of NFV is that several older products and legacy networks are not capable of being upgraded to support the technology. Hence, till the time the migration to all-virtual networks is completed, enterprises and service providers will have to deal with a combination of legacy networks and new virtualised networks, thereby requiring them to manage a multi-vendor environment. A partial virtual environment with physical devices can cause performance issues in service delivery. NFV also demands process realignment so that traditional and virtual infrastructure can be managed simultaneously.

In some cases, virtualisation has also been reported to have led to abnormal latency variations and significant throughput instability even when the underlying network was only lightly utilised. Hence, a major challenge is to ensure that network performance remains at least as good as purpose-built hardware implementation. The transition to virtual networks also raises security-related concerns. Software, by its very nature, is less secure than hardware. Moreover, unlike conventional IT environments, NFV requires managing IT outside the enterprises’ own premises, which removes an element of controllability and fuels serious security concerns.

Another key barrier to virtualisation is the lack of carefully defined business cases. This can be attributed to the fact that several advantages of NFV such as quicker time-to-market and better network optimisation are difficult to measure quantitatively, making business cases based on these concepts harder to define.Meanwhile, lack of global standards for communication among different components is also hindering the adoption of NFV.

Outlook for the future

NFV is part of a larger trend of moving IT functions out of dedicated hardware to software.NFV helps separate network functions, such as firewalling and intrusion detection, from proprietary hardware appliances, enabling them to run in software. This results in a lower cost agile network infrastructure, bringing in several benefits to network carriers such as significant reduction in capital investment and energy
consumption and reduced time-to-market of new services.Outlay on physical networking equipment and overhead costs of running and maintaining the network are significantly reduced with NFV. By running a network based on NFV, telecom operators globally are finding it easier to expand and modify the network, and provide considerably more flexibility to their customers. NFV is, therefore, emerging as a cheaper, more flexible and more scalable alternative to traditional infrastructure.

While NFV has already begun to converge with the existing legacy equipment and a huge surge in NFV adoption is expected in the next few years,the transition towards an all-virtualised framework is still neither cost-effective nor easy for most operators as the existing infrastructure needs to be de-installed and removed to make way for virtualised functions. In order to migrate to NFV-driven networks, operators and enterprises will have to not only modify their network architectures, but also overhaul their business models to make fundamental organisational changes. Virtualisation requires a basic change in the way networks are controlled, which necessitates a completely different approach to network and employee management.In order to meet the requirements of a transition towards virtualised networks, it is necessary that the new architecture supportsdynamic, real-time network and service changes in response to network events.