What is Network Functions Virtualization (NFV)?

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

About Matt Pooley

Virtualisation practice lead

Matt leads STL Partners’ consulting and research activity around virtualisation. He works with leading operators and tech companies across the globe on understanding the telco cloud opportunity, strategies and routes to deployment. He is a regular speaker at industry events, who has authored research on topics as broad as innovation, network experience, and SD-WAN deployment models. Matt holds an MA in Modern Languages from Cambridge, and speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish.

Read more about Virtualisation, SD-WAN & NFV

Research

NFV Deployment Tracker: North America update

The latest update to our NFV deployment tracker that monitors all commercial deployments globally. New deployments in N America are increasingly driven by 5G, with a striking role for open source and telco self-builds.

Published: June 2019

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Webinar

Virtualisation: Reaching tipping point

A webinar on NFV and SDN. What operators are deploying, what this means, and how 5G is likely to accelerate progress. Based on our unique data on NFV deployments

Live event: May 2019

Register now

Webinar

Edge business models and how to execute them

A joint webinar with MobiledgeX and STL Partners exploring edge cloud business models and the value proposition for application developers in augmented reality

Read more