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Network Function Virtualization or NFV Explained

Originating Author of this NFV article is Steve Noble (posted on


While confusion reigns when it comes to the meaning of Software Defined Networks, the newly separated concept of Network Function Virtualization or NFV is attempting to separate itself from the fray.

Network Function Virtualization can be summed up by the statement that: “Due to recent network focused advancements in PC hardware, Any service able to be delivered on proprietary, application specific hardware should be able to be done on a virtual machine”. Essentially: Routers, Firewalls, Load Balancers and other network devices all running virtualized on commodity hardware.

Source: Steve Noble
Source: Steve Noble

NFV Technical Background

NFV was born in October of 2012 when AT&T, BT, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom and many other Telcos introduced the NFV Call to Action document. In order to increase velocity, a new committee was set up under the ETSI the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. This committee will work on creating the NFV standard.

What Makes NFV Different

While PC-based network devices have been available since the ’80s, they were generally used by small companies and networking enthusiasts who didn’t or couldn’t afford to buy a commercial-based solution. In the last few years many drivers have brought PC-based networking devices back into the limelight, including: Ethernet as the last mile, better network interface cards, and Intel’s focus on networking processing in its last few generation of chips.

Today many vendors are producing PC-based network devices. Advancements in packet handling within Intel’s processors, allowing processor cores to be re-programmed into network processors, allow PC-based network devices to push 10’s or even 100’s of Gbp/s.

Adding Network APIs To Devices Allows For Higher Performance

For the last few years, network device vendors have been building network APIs such asOpenFlow into their devices. Having an API to interact with network devices allows for the separation of the control plane from the forwarding plane. The control plane is run on a separate device and sends control data to the network device. One benefit of Network APIs is that switches that can push Tbp/s can act like mid-to high-end routers.

This combination of high-performance firewall and load balancing software running on commodity PC hardware along with the ability to off-load traffic onto inexpensive programmable switches is pushing towards large changes in the networking industry.

Values of NFV

Some of the values to the NFV concept are speed, agility, and cost reduction. By centralizing designs around commodity server hardware, network operators can:

  • Do a single PoP/Site design based on commodity compute hardware;
    • Avoiding designs involving one-off installs of appliances that have different power, cooling and space needs simplifies planning.
  • Utilize resources more effectively;
    • Virtualization allows providers to allocate only the necessary resources needed by each feature/function.
  • Deploy network functions without having to send engineers to each site;
    • “Truck Rolls” are costly both from a time and money standpoint.
  • Achieve Reductions in OpEX and CapEX; and,
  • Achieve Reduction of system complexity.

What Is The Status Of NFV?

The Network Function Virtualization committee is planning a kick-off meeting in mid-January in France. Network operators, server manufacturers, and network equipment vendors have committed to being involved, promising constructive discussions about the current state of each industry. The list of vendors involved is very large and growing every day. Once the committee is settled, the base concepts will be worked out.

Action Item: CIOs should watch the NFV and Network API spaces carefully. As the NFV committee develops standards and concepts, a lot of information will come out. CTOs can start looking at Network APIs like OpenFlow and task their network architecture team to look at Open Source projects such as RouteFlow, which has built a full control plane, including routing, into a single machine.

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