Network functions virtualization may be in its infancy now, but it's sure to make an impact on your enterprise network.
According to IHS Infonetics, the network functions virtualization (NFV) market will likely grow from $2.3 billion in 2015 to $11.6 billion by 2019. And while only a small portion of networking purchases today are influenced by virtualization technologies, that number is expected to skyrocket.
NFV technology separates networking tasks like network address translation (NAT), firewalling, intrusion detection, load balancing, domain name service (DNS), WAN optimization and caching from the hardware they run on. Without NFV, organizations typically deploy multiple specialized appliances in order to meet their needs for these various services. But with NFV, organizations can use standardized, commodity hardware running software in a virtual machine (VM) to serve these various functions. It is different from but complementary to software-defined networking (SDN), and the two technologies are often deployed in tandem.
The earliest proponents of NFV were service providers, who were attracted by the technology's promised cost savings and greater agility. They helped create some early NFV standards under the auspices of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Now, enterprises are also becoming more interested in deploying NFV technology for a variety of reasons.
Lower capital expenditures
The most obvious benefit of NFV is that it eliminates the need to purchase costly specialized appliances for networking functions. Instead, enterprises can meet these needs using commodity servers, which generally cost a small fraction of the price of specialized appliances. In many cases, It teams may be able to simply add more VMs to hardware that they already own.
In addition, because enterprises need reliable, uninterrupted service from their networks, they build redundancy into their networks in case a particular piece of hardware fails. In a traditional environment, this means duplicates of those expensive appliances are built in and ready to go in case of failure. But in a virtualized environment, IT can move services around to various hardware as needed. Getting rid of the need to buy all those separate appliances can dramatically lower costs.
Lower operating costs
NFV doesn't just save enterprises money on their upfront costs, it can also help them reduce their ongoing operational expenses. By centralizing network management (especially if it is deployed alongside SDN), NFV can reduce the amount of staff time required to maintain networks, freeing network administrators up for other tasks. In addition, NFV deployments generally take up less space than specialized appliances, resulting in lower real estate costs and related expenses. Finally, NFV deployments can be more energy efficient, resulting in lower utility costs.
However, some experts warn that there is a learning curve for staff when deploying NFV, so it may take some time for these ongoing cost savings to be realized.
All virtualization technologies hold out the promise of achieving greater agility, and NFV is no exception. Because companies no longer need to buy expensive appliances for various functions, it becomes much easier for enterprises to deploy new functions. If, for example, a company has a short-term need for a virtual private network (VPN) or for network traffic encryption, they can easily add those capabilities without have to incur a major expense. When the need passes, it is just as easy to shut those functions down.
NFV also makes it easier and more affordable for companies to try out new network function technologies.
In a similar way, NFV also makes it easier for enterprises to grow their networks. Again, they no longer will need to buy costly hardware for various network functions and can instead fill those needs with commodity hardware. That means that adding additional capacity to the network becomes much more affordable, and it requires much less time and work on the part of the network administrators. As a result, end users don't have to worry about downtime, and network performance remains fast as the organization adds more customers and/or employees.
Staying ahead of cybercriminals is a non-stop challenge. A 2015 InformationWeek report found that 60% of enterprises believed they are more vulnerable to security breaches because of the increasing number of ways they can be attacked. As hackers and cyberspies develop new techniques for breaking into networks and stealing data, vendors are constantly working to create new security measures to counter those techniques. Enterprises often find that they need to invest in new hardware every few years in order to add these new security capabilities to their networks as they become available. In an NFV environment, adding new security technology to the network becomes much less expensive, making it easier to keep up with the bad guys.
Improved user experience
In many cases, implementing NFV also results in a better experience for end users. In the case of hardware failure that might otherwise cause outages or slow performance, NFV makes it easy to move workloads to other hardware without requiring the purchase of additional expensive appliances. And the lower costs and improved scalability makes it easier than ever to keep up with growing demand. That means IT can do a better job of meeting its service level agreements (SLAs) and can keep employees and customers happier. That's good for IT and the organization as a whole.
The ability to add new capabilities to their networks very quickly was one of the big factors that began attracting service providers to NFV. Those same capabilities also make NFV appealing to enterprises. Without NFV, IT organizations would need to purchase specialized hardware, wait for it to arrive and then physically set up the hardware, plug in all the cables, etc. But with NFV, enterprises can often provision new network features on infrastructure that is already in place -- they just provision an additional VM to handle the new workload. There is no need to buy anything new or set up any hardware, and there are a lot fewer chances for something to go wrong in the deployment process.
Integration with virtualized infrastructure
Most enterprises have already begun the process of virtualizing other parts of their infrastructure. In a 2015 report, Gartner noted, "About 75% of x86 server workloads are virtualized." And many companies are also investigating or deploying storage virtualization technologies. In a lot of data centers, particularly those with private or hybrid clouds, networking is the last major piece of the infrastructure puzzle that hasn't yet been virtualized. These organizations have already seen the cost and agility benefits that come with virtualization, and their staff already has experience managing virtualized environments. For these organizations, NFV will enhance and complement their existing virtualization efforts.