As far as managed service providers are concerned, the most transformative technology under development today is network function virtualization (NFV) software, which replaces traditional networking appliances that are complex to manage with software.
But when it comes to NFV software, much of the same debate that is happening around software-defined networks (SDN) is playing out over the definition of the word "open." On the one side, Cisco and a handful of other networking vendors are betting that NFVs will run mainly on top of proprietary architectures such as the Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) framework.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the OPNFV project, an open source project lead by the Linux Foundation that counts 165 software developers among its core base. Fresh off announcing the availability of OPNFV Brahmaputra, the second release of the open source platform, the vendors behind OPNFV are making a case for an open platform that is better optimized for compatibility with other open source projects such as the OpenStack cloud management framework and the OpenDaylight SDN controller.
New enhancements provided via OPNFV include tighter integration with various OpenStack modules, support for Layer 3 virtual private networks (VPNs), improved testing, and better overall performance.
While Cisco is prepared to support networking gear based on commercial silicon and OpenStack, it is making no bones about the fact that it strongly contends that NFVs will run faster and be easier to manage on its proprietary network architecture. Furthermore, in terms of integrating with other open source frameworks such as OpenStack, Cisco makes it clear this is a major strategic priority.
Impact on MSPs
For most MSPs, this debate will come down to the actual delta in NFV performance running on a proprietary platform versus an open source one. Early on it might be fair to conclude that the Cisco SDN will be more robust given the wealth of investments the company is making. As standard x86 processors become more robust, though, the difference in performance between a Cisco platform and an open source one should narrow considerably in the years ahead. In fact, AT&T is making it clear that it is betting on the latter approach.
Another important factor to consider is the amount of investment an MSP might already have made with a networking vendor such as Cisco. The vast majority of MSPs can’t afford to upgrade their networking infrastructure overnight. So, most MSPs will find themselves integrating open source and proprietary networking technologies for years to come—especially if commercial NFV software provides a clear performance advantage and is also easier to deploy and maintain.
Whatever the approach, NFV adoption is expected to increase substantially once SDN platforms become more widely implemented. In fact, research firms such as IHS Technology are already trying to handicap which vendors are at the forefront of specific areas such as NFV orchestration software even though NFV deployments in production environments remains relatively slight.
At this point, there’s no doubt that NFVs will transform the way IT infrastructure is deployed and managed, but MSPs shouldn't mistake a clear view for a short distance. Just because something can be seen on the horizon does not mean getting there will be easy. It does mean that MSPs can take comfort in the fact that they are heading in the right direction, though.