We are entering an era of market disruption based on a growing industry demand for network functions virtualization. This NFV trend requires communications service providers (CSPs) to virtualize their network functions and harness those new capabilities to quickly create innovative services for customers.
NFV is a kind of network architecture based on traditional server-virtualization techniques, such as those used in enterprise IT. A virtualized network function consists of one or more virtual machines running different software and processes. But instead of assigning custom hardware appliances for each network function, these virtualized functions run on top of standard servers, switches and storage devices, or atop cloud computing infrastructures.
CSPs that fail to implement virtualized environments are likely to face stiff competitive headwinds as 5G mobile networks get rolled out and become more mature over the next several years. The first phase of this journey will involve the use of more point solutions to demonstrate proofs-of-concept that can justify NFV investments. Over time, leading CSPs will make the full-scale rip-and-replacement of their legacy network technologies for NFV-enabled infrastructures.
Why does all this matter? Because we have reached an inflection point for CSPs that have long been throttled by major networking vendors in terms of what services they can easily deploy. With the added flexibility and automation that comes with NFV, the new era of CSPs will be able to exert much greater control over their service offerings. In turn, this trend could improve business outcomes for end users who seek differentiated services.
The Challenges of Building Virtualized Network Infrastructures
Advanced automation is helping to simplify the deployment of network infrastructures today. The next step will be for application developers to deploy directly to production, without the involvement of operations teams. Achieving this nirvana of software-defined everything will require advanced automated systems that can run smoothly without failures across hybrid clouds. Interest is growing for advanced automation systems that can run in hybrid clouds, but many IT managers are still trying to figure out the best ways to get there.
The first big technical hurdle involves the readiness of virtualized infrastructure managers to control the virtualized business layer for carrier-class operations. Until now, developers have mostly focused on strengthening OpenStack to meet the heavy-duty operational needs of carriers. But now they are also being forced to strengthen NFV automation to deliver intelligent, machine learning-based automation that can tightly control network processes.
Another concern involves interoperability between the network hardware components and the software management layers. For NFV solutions to be broadly adopted, they will have to meet stringent carrier standards for six-nines levels of reliability. This requires an additional focus on properly configuring the underlying servers and correctly sizing them to make sure the hardware stays reliable and the data accuracy is dependable.
Such networking environments will remain hybrid indefinitely because there will be no single installed physical instance of existing network equipment. This will cause NFV projects to require failsafe integration across all the hardware elements as part of the overall design architecture.
The Need to Enable Faster Network Transformations
We know that communication service providers are undergoing a rapid evolution in their efforts to transform their networks. Fully 100 percent of global CSPs plan to deploy NFV, with the vast majority launching programs by this year, according to research by IHS Markit.
The industry development of NFV standards and core technologies emerged just five years ago, yet we have already reached the point where production deployments are underway for a growing number of use cases.
Several market drivers are accelerating this widespread deployment of NFV. As stated already, 5G will require NFV for programmable network services. New demands for flexible network services are also stemming from vast streams of data generated by the Internet of Things. Likewise, user interest in mobile videos will require still more network bandwidth and flexibility. In addition, carriers are deploying new “telco clouds” to manage unexpected growth with more flexible capacity.
Perhaps most importantly, CSPs find themselves under growing pressure to deliver revenue-generating services faster, and with less complexity. NFV networks can become extremely complicated very quickly, eliminating the capacity for human oversight to manage them in a consistent, error-free manner. To achieve that end-result, CSPs will have to adopt greater use of automation across their entire virtualized networks.