IT managers are equally intrigued by the promise of network functions virtualization, and leery of handing over control of their critical networks to unproven software, much of which will be managed outside their data centers. Some of the questions surrounding NFV will be addressed by burgeoning standards efforts, but most organizations continue to adopt a “show me” attitude toward the technology.
Big things are predicted for software defined networks (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV), but as with any significant change in the global network infrastructure, the road to networking hardware independence will have its share of bumps.
For one thing, securing networks that have no physical boundary is no walk in the park. Viodi’s Alan Weissberger explains in a December 29, 2014, post that replacing traditional hardware functions with software extends the potential attack space “exponentially.” When you implement multiple virtual appliances on a single physical server, for example, they’ll all be affected by a single breach of that server.
Even with the security concerns, the benefits of virtualization in terms of flexibility and potential cost savings are difficult for organizations of all sizes to ignore. In a December 23, 2014, article on TechWeek Europe, Ciena’s Benoit de la Tour points out that virtualization allows network operators to expand or remove firewalling, load balancing, and other services and appliance functionality instantly.
Simplifying hardware management is one of NFV’s principal selling points. John Fruehe writes on the Moor Insights & Strategy blog that NFV replaces some specialty networking hardware with software that runs on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) x86 servers, or as VMs running on those servers. It also simplifies network architectures by reducing the total number of physical devices.
Potential NFV limitations: licensing and carrier control
The maturation of the technology underlying NFV concepts is shown in the creation of the Open Platform for NFV, a joint project of the Linux Foundation and such telecom/network companies as AT&T, Cisco, HP, NTT Docomo, and Vodafone. As ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols reports in a September 30, 2014, article, OPNFV is intended to create a ” carrier-grade, integrated, open source NFV reference platform.”
Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin explains that the platform would be similar to Linux distributions serving a variety of needs and allowing code to be integrated upstream and downstream. Even with an open-source base, some potential NFV adopters are hesitant to cede so much control of their networks to carriers. For one thing, companies don’t want to find themselves caught in the middle of feuding carriers and equipment vendors.
More importantly, IT managers are concerned about ensuring the reliability of their networks in such widespread virtual environments. Red Hat’s Mark McLoughlin states in an October 8, 2014, post on OpenSource.com that network functions implemented as horizontal scale-out applications will address reliability the way cloud apps do: each application tier will be distributed among multiple failure domains. Scheduling of performance-sensitive applications will be in the hands of the telcos, which makes SLAs more important than ever.
Existing software licensing agreements also pose a challenge to organizations hoping to benefit from use of NFV. A November 26, 2014, article by TechTarget’s Rob Lemos describes a hospital that attempted to switch from a license based on total unique users to one based on concurrent users as it implemented network virtualization. The process of renegotiating the licenses took four years.
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