Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is an alternative design approach for building complex IT applications, particularly in the telecommunications and service provider industries, that virtualizes entire classes of function into building blocks that may be connected, or chained, together to create services. For example, virtualized session border controller function could be deployed to protect a network without the typical cost and complexity of obtaining and installing physical units.
NFV relies upon, but differs from traditional server virtualization techniques such as those used in enterprise IT. A virtualized network function, or VNF, may consist of one or more virtual machines running different software and processes.
In October 2012, an industry specifications group, “Network Functions Virtualisation, published a white paper at a conference in Darmstadt, Germany on software-defined networking and OpenFlow. The group, part of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute ,ETSI, was made up of representatives from the telecommunications industry from both Europe and beyond.
Also, SDN or Software-defined networking is a related concept to NFV. Whereas NFV builds virtualized network functions, how the network is built to support them is not defined within the NFV paradigm. However, the same virtualized platform that supports provisioning machines into VNFs may also support programming (virtualized) network devices and flows to support those VNFs. This latter programming is the domain of SDN. “The arguments for NFV are compelling for mobile operators. When combined with SDN, NFV will enable them to deliver new services flexibly and faster, with positive implications for revenue generation and their ability to expand into new markets. NFV is timely as operators migrate to LTE and look for new ways to take full advantage of this technology. However, it is critical that virtualized network functions for LTE maintain the features and stringent performance requirements of the same functions in non-virtualized networks. NFV also provides mobile operators with an opportunity to rethink network operations and reduce operational cost. Alcatel-Lucent has a market-leading understanding of NFV and is well-positioned to help mobile operators on their NFV journey”, said Caroline Chappell, Senior Analyst with Heavy Reading.
NFV has proven a popular standard even in its infancy. Many major network equipment vendors have announced support for NFV and the early adopters of NFV include companies like Sandvine, Alcatel-Lucent, Allot, Arista Networks, Brocade, Cyan, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, Metaswitch, Nakina Systems, NEC, Openwave Mobility, Pluribus Networks, RAD, Wedge Networks Inc., 6Wind and Tail-f.
Recently, Alcatel-Lucent has delivered a portfolio of virtualized mobile network function applications – evolved packet core (EPC), IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) and radio access network (RAN) – and extending them to the cloud. Mobile operators will deploy these network applications to drive breakthrough scalability and elasticity, becoming more agile, efficient and responsive as they innovate with new service offerings, speed deployments on a massive scale and expand into new markets. Today the company is announcing a carrier-grade virtualized mobile portfolio that is hardware independent – by the optimal separation of functional software from the underlying hardware. This will allow it to leverage industry initiatives such as OpenStack, to operate with NFV platforms including management, orchestration, infrastructure and networking elements. The virtualized portfolio includes:
• A virtualized Evolved Packet Core (vEPC). This automates the authentication and management of subscribers and the services they access, as well as the creation of and connectivity to services within the operator’s network and to the wider Internet on a massive scale, with the quality and performance subscribers demand. Alcatel-Lucent’s vEPC leverages a software base that has been proven in the networks of the world’s largest mobile network operators. The company is currently conducting five customer trials using the vEPC.
• A virtualized IMS (vIMS) solution – a cloud communications platform for delivering a rich portfolio of multimedia services over IP networks. Alcatel-Lucent’s vIMS embraces new open
cloud technologies whilst retaining the high performance leveraged from being operational at scale in the largest communication networks with 100% availability. Alcatel-Lucent’s vIMS is already being deployed within customer networks and the company is engaged in eight vIMS cloud customer trials.
• A virtualized RAN portfolio – encompassing a virtualized 3G Radio Network Controller (RNC) and virtualized proof of concept for LTE and LTE-Advanced Radio Access Networks. The LTE components leverage Alcatel-Lucent’s LTE software deployed in eight of the top ten mobile operator networks and advanced wireless algorithms from Bell Labs.
Elaborating on this, Marcus Weldon, Corporate Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Alcatel-Lucent and Bell Labs President said: “Each mobile operator will have different priorities and want to take their own specific path to NFV, based on their business priorities and the state of their network and operations readiness. Building on our strong IP foundation, we have pioneered an open SDN and NFV architecture that combines the best of IP with the best of IT, to create a truly carrier-grade cloud network solution. Our accelerated investments in virtualized telecom applications, our CloudBand 2.0 platform and our Nuage Networks SDN venture are clear proof points that we have all the elements to help operators create an open agile, efficient cloud environment at a speed that meets their individual needs.”