NFV and SDN change the game – but how should telcos play it?

This overview explains the essentials about virtualisation, NFV and SDN. Read more specialist research and articles on virtualisation and get in touch with our edge specialists on our virtualisation hub.

Network function virtualisation (NFV) is about taking the hardware-based network functions of the past and running them as software. Telecoms operators can replace expensive dedicated networking equipment with common off-the-shelf equipment which runs “virtual” network functions (VNFs).

NFV is often related to software-defined networking (SDN). This is the idea that, once your network functions are running as software, you are able to control and configure them remotely (and possibly automatically, without humans), using a software portal.

The NFV project was kicked off in 2012 by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. SDN, by contrast, was initially developed to support networking within cloud data centres, and started to spread to telco networks at around the same time as the NFV standards push began.

The point? Reduce costs, and free operators from dependence on a limited number of dominant equipment vendors.

In the event, progress with NFV / SDN development and roll-out has been slower than expected.

This is because several key needs have not yet been addressed.

  1. Inter-operability between functions, management and orchestration systems from different vendors. It has taken much longer than expected to agree on software standards for the NFV IT stack. Various competing and incompatible standards and frameworks exist.
  2. Open, vendor-neutral platforms. NFV is supposed to allow telecoms operators to pick and mix software from different vendors, to drive competition and keep costs down. Yet vendors have tended to deliver closed, virtualised versions of their existing network functions. And, of course, their own NFV IT stacks needed to run them.
  3. Functions that outperform anything we’ve seen before. Operators deploying NFV to date have struggled to realise the performance and efficiency gains they need to support growth in existing services. Upcoming technologies such as 5G will require even greater improvements.

With 5G on the horizon, we believe the NFV and SDN project is reaching a tipping point. It is essential that the industry overcomes these problems – not just to support existing business models, but to support future innovation.

We specialise in NFV/SDN and can help you. Your first step could be to look at a selection of our recent virtualisation research and insight or get in touch with us with your questions.

Content last updated: May 2019