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NFV: Not Just For Service Providers

The conventional wisdom has been that network functions virtualization is associated exclusively with communications service providers. Part of the reason for that is the key role that the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has played in the development of NFV. For example, roughly three years ago an industry specifications group for NFV (NFV ISG) was formed under the auspices of ETSI. While the membership has evolved significantly, the initial members of the group were all CSPs such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and NTT.

Given the leadership role that ETSI is playing combined with the interest that service providers have in virtualizing functionality such as broadband network gateways and radio network controllers -- which has no general applicability in enterprise networks -- it's easy to see why some people associate NFV strictly with CSPs.

However, while service providers typically have a broader range of functionality that they are interested in virtualizing than do enterprises, enterprise IT organizations have been implementing virtualized functionality for several years -- e.g., virtualized WAN optimization controllers and virtualized application delivery controllers. While ETSI champions the interest that CSPs have with virtualizing network functions, the Open Networking User Group (ONUG) is one of the organizations that's emerged to champion the corresponding interest that enterprises have with implementing and operating virtualized functionality.

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ONUG was founded in 2012 and unlike ETSI, its members are primarily enterprise companies such as Fidelity Investments, Citigroup and FedEx. In a white paper entitled "Open Networking Challenges and Opportunities," ONUG discussed the cost and complexity of managing a large number of Layer 4-7 network appliances from different vendors, including load balancers, ADCs, WAN optimization controllers, firewalls, VPNs, and intrusion detection/prevention systems

In that white paper, ONUG used the phrase network services virtualization (NSV) to refer to the virtualization of functions such as the ones listed above. According to ONUG, the NSV use case “Seeks to leverage the flexibility and low costs of commodity servers to establish a scale-out pooling of virtual and physical appliances, which can be put to use servicing applications.” ONUG also said that as each Layer 4-7 function is virtualized in software, it provides the following benefits:

  • Lower CAPEX costs (approximately 30% less);
  • Rapid service provisioning;
  • Reduced risk through service distribution;
  • Eased management and reduced operational costs;
  • Consistent policies across different Layer 4-7 services and across data center, campus, and WAN networks; and
  • Programmatic control and ability to offer network functions as a service to developers.

Other potential benefits of NSV cited by ONUG include the ability for IT business leaders to deliver on-demand or self-service IT delivery to business unit managers.

Clearly, there are differences between what ETSI is trying to accomplish with NFV and what ONUG is trying to achieve with NSV. As mentioned, CSPs hope to virtualize some functionality that few if any enterprise organizations implement and their need for scale far surpasses what is needed by the vast majority of enterprise organizations. In addition, CSPs are more likely to have a requirement to link the usage of virtualized network functions to their billing systems than do enterprise organizations. However, if you change at most a few words in how ONUG describes the NSV use case, it sounds exactly like what ETSI and others are trying to achieve with NFV.

To test the conventional wisdom about the applicability of NFV, I recently surveyed 144 network professionals and asked them to indicate their view of the relevance of NFV to an enterprise IT architecture. Their responses are shown below.

NFV survey


We can debate whether the minor differences between what CSPs and enterprise IT organizations are trying to accomplish are significant enough to justify having a different phrase to describe their efforts. However, the reality is that the term network service virtualization didn’t get any traction in the marketplace and as shown in Table 1, half of IT professionals believe that NFV has either significant or very significant relevance to enterprise IT architectures. The bottom line is that it's time to recognize that NFV covers a range of activities that are applicable both to CSPs and enterprises.