More and more it seems that everything in our personal and professional lives is being virtualized. Love it or hate it, this notion is less of a feeling and more so a factual statement. Virtualization plays a major role in the business world today because virtualizing various business processes allows companies to be better, more competitive and grow their success and profits. Database virtualization is becoming commonplace. Storage through the Cloud is standard. Basically, if some key business element isn’t yet virtualized, you could safely bet that someone out there is trying to figure out a way to do it. So what’s next? Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) might be the next “big thing.”
Network Functions Virtualization strives to virtualize any service inherent in a business’s network capabilities. These services traditionally require physical hardware or specialized software. Think about things like firewalls, routers, WAN optimization, and domain service names (DSN); these are some of the services that NFV wants to virtualize. The benefits of virtualizing these types of services have huge potential implications for businesses’ efficiency and success with customers. Some of the potential benefits of NFV include cost savings, greater adaptability, better security, and a more pleasing user interface.
One of the most obvious ways to cut costs using NFV is through the elimination of physical appliances for networking purposes. Instead of having separate machines for fire-walling, load balancing and network routing, all of these things could be carried out on virtual machines (VMs) using everyday servers. The up-front cost of these machines is eliminated, and maintenance costs are also reduced. Instead of having to repair these specialized appliances or have back-ups, the IT department can often mend any issues with a specific service by moving virtualized elements around using hardware and additional VMs. The ability to build in redundancy with additional VMs allows for an easier repair process for IT and for less interruption on the business-side of things when a problem with one of these virtualized services arises. It also costs businesses less money (i.e. electrical energy and employee efforts) to run virtualized hardware than physical machines, which is a long-term benefit of virtualization.
Adaptability is increased in part by the reduced costs discussed above. If businesses run into a short-term networking need, it is easier to implement a service if everything is virtualized on the same server. For example, if a specialized encryption algorithm needs to be implemented for a project, it is much easier and more affordable for a business to apply that encryption virtually with all of the other virtualized networking services than if multiple appliances and IT employees were needed to activate this encryption. Consolidating multiple networking services to a single virtualized platform also makes it easier for businesses to expand their networking capabilities. It’s simpler to add functionality using commodity hardware than with specialized, expensive hardware associated with traditional networking services.
NFV offers the potential for increased security by making it easier to implement security improvements. If all of a business’s networking services are centralized on one server, making modifications or activating new security software for these services is easier and takes less time than if networking services are decentralized on various appliances. The reduction in time required to implement improved security allows businesses to better keep up with the pace of cybercriminals.
End users also benefit from NFV because the IT department can better service the customers’ needs. The increased speed and reduced down-time associated with NFV result in improved network experience for employees and customers. Easier repairs mean customers are less likely to have long-term issues interfacing with the business they’re working with. Overall, virtualizing network services makes IT’s job much easier and makes everyone happier. One of the short-comings of NFV is the learning curve for IT staff. This learning curve could result in short-term increased costs for businesses, but over a longer time period, NFV has many cost benefits.
Companies like Cisco are already implementing NFV and selling NFV platforms to other businesses. Cisco’s solutions combine open source and software-defined networking (SDN) with network functions virtualization to optimize NFV’s potential. Their current solutions include Cisco Evolved Services Platform and Cisco Evolved Programmable Network. Both offer the potential to virtualize network functions and offer networking improvements like the ones discussed above.