The future of network services enabled by network function virtualization (NFV) software was on display in full force this week at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017 conference.
The working NFV theory is that many of the network services that are processed at the core of the network today will soon be moving out to the edge. To enable that, many of the physical appliances that are currently relied on to both process network services and secure them will be transformed into software that can run on commodity processors at the edge of the network.
Once that occurs managed service providers will then be able to more easily deploy complete turnkey platforms mainly in the form of virtual customer premise equipment (vCPE) that can remotely manage solutions deployed at the edge of their networks.
NFV usage evolves
Right now, most service providers are a long way from turning that vision into reality. While there’s significant usage of NFV software, most of it is being deployed in isolation. Only a few of the largest carriers such as AT&T have anything in place that remotely resembles a management and orchestration (MANO) framework for managing NFVs. The good news there is meaningful progress being made on open source frameworks thanks largely to AT&T. But at this rate it may still be close to the end of the decade before most service providers put NFV software into a production environment that has a MANO framework in place robust enough to build a vCPE service around.
There’s even debate over what form those NFVs will take. The original vision for NFVs assumed that a virtual machine would be the core technology used to deliver those functions. But as container technology such as Docker continues to rapidly mature, many developers of NFV software are evaluating the merits of using a container approach that is easier to port across multiple types of network hardware. Unlike traditional IT environments dominated by Intel, the networking landscape is littered with multiple types of network processing hardware that would be easier to leverage using containers.
The future of NFVs
In the meantime, the hype cycle surrounding NFVs is approaching its zenith. At the MWC conference this week, there was no shortage of providers of IT infrastructure, including Dell EMC, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Red Hat, all promising to make it simpler to support the roll out of NFV software on their platforms. The degree to which service providers that often have their own engineering talent will want to rely on commercial vendors instead of white box technologies to support their NFV software deployments is debatable. In general, service providers prefer to rely on their own resources rather than pay for commercial software licenses and hardware maintenance fees.
There’s no doubt at this juncture that networking services are about to be transformed utterly. But as is often the case when starting out on a long journey, the destination may change. Most service providers will continue to head in the same general NFV direction, but exactly where they might wind up at the end of that journey still lies beyond the NFV horizon.