Back in early 2012, the media was all over stack wars that reportedly were taking place between Cisco and VMware. This culminated in VMware's Nicira acquisition in July 2012, paving the way for the coming of software-based networking.
Four years later, the market still remains in development mode. Many service providers and enterprises are trying to come to grips with Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN). Despite the coolness factor, there is still some uncertainty about how these disruptive technologies should be leveraged for optimal business outcomes.
Interestingly enough, it does look like the uptake on NFV is exceptionally high. In a recent NFV report by IHS, no less than 100% of surveyed service providers said they expect to deploy NFV down the road. Backing up this number, IHS also projected that the annual growth rate in the NFV space would exceed 40% every year until the early 2020s.
Nevertheless, before the inflection point can be reached, there are still some technology challenges that must be addressed. Based on the IHS report, full 59% of service providers had pointed out integration between NFV and older networks as their largest concern. Considering the mission-critical nature of NFV, this notion seems valid.
In most cases, NFV Proof of Concepts (POCs) have been carried out in isolated environments with no interoperability with the existing networks. Further, as many vendors have been trying to pair NFV and SDN together, these POCs may have been based on a premise that is not based on reality.
To optimize the business outcome for NFV-based services, the associated process automation should be network-independent. That is, one should be able to deploy Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) using an identical process regardless of whether the network function is set up in SDN-enabled or a traditional network. A standardized process will significantly improve the economics of NFV-based offerings as it facilitates deployment also in existing networks.
The technical solution for addressing this concern is to decouple NFV and SDN. By adding a separate network management and provisioning layer between these two technology platforms, service providers are able to achieve the following:
1) Manage both SDN-enabled and traditional networks within a single unified solution.
2) Provision release parameters such as names, UIDs and IP addresses to NFV orchestrators through a standardized process.
The decoupling model will also open the door for supporting multiple NFV orchestrators and SDNs if need be, making sure that the customers will not end up stepping into vendor lock-ins.
Bill Gates once said that we overestimate the change that takes place in two years, and underestimate the change that occurs in the next ten. I for one expected things to develop much faster back in 2012. However, if IHS's numbers are anywhere close to reality and the large-scale rollouts start soon, the world of service provisioning has the opportunity to completely transform itself by 2022.
By Juha Holkkola, Co-Founder and Chief Technologist at FusionLayer Inc.