In October, analyst house Technavio released a research report that indicated the annual network function virtualization spend could grow by 32.88 percent over the next four years. That comes as no surprise, as NFV can bring carriers greater efficiencies to networks operation, and can be used to inspire a more flexible approach to the way services are tested and developed. However, to make the most of these benefits, carriers need to be smart about the technology they use, and how it is implemented.
The transition to IMS architectures will facilitate the introduction of NFV into the network, as carriers look to embrace data services alongside traditional voice and SMS. Carriers must buy network functions for their new data services, and implementing them as virtual network functions makes the most sense commercially, as they can be rapidly deployed at a competitive cost, which puts operators in more control of their rollouts.
Traditionally, network functions have been hosted on purpose-built hardware, which is expensive and slow to deploy. Any changes to that functionality must be made by the equipment provider at a substantial cost, which creating a huge barrier to ongoing development. VNFs change this dynamic – they are hosted in data centers, in environments that offer flexibility, that enable rapid adaptation.
As carriers move to IMS architectures and introduce VNFs into their networks, one of the greatest benefits they will experience is the ability to scale their network functions to meet the demands of their customers. In the past, carriers have had to set the capacity of their networks for the busiest hours of usage, and then purchase additional capacity for extra-busy times at a high cost. With VNFs, carriers can scale network capacity to any degree equally readily, in an efficient and cost-effective manner, in line with peak periods of activity.
This benefit is particularly valuable to carriers that service different geographical regions, especially those that operate globally. Network capacity can be redistributed to different time zones, depending on when they are most active (normally during the daytime). Reducing capacity wastage like this can help carriers significantly reduce their capex and opex.
While implementing NFV drives improvements in operational efficiency, it can also enable operators to develop new services and enhance legacy services for their customers. Developing or changing a service was once predicated on changing or buying expensive hardware, at prices and within timescales dictated by the equipment provider. This has proved to be a difficult path for progress that has resulted in very little service differentiation or development over the last decade. With NFV, the network functionality is inherently more flexible, which enables carriers to leverage in-house or third-party development teams to continually develop services in-line with and ahead of their customers’ demands.
NFV also has advantages in the way services are tested and validated prior to launch. Carriers can create multiple virtual test networks, avoiding the traditional bottleneck of hardware testing environments that are expensive, slow, and can stunt service development. Virtualized test networks can now be created that take on the same characteristics as the main network, deployed rapidly and at a low cost. This means that services can be developed and tested in parallel, meaning that from concept phase, a service can be developed, tested, and launched in a matter of months, rather than years. This model enables operators to adapt and create services specific to a customer need, replicating the DevOps model that is so successful for internet players such as Google (News - Alert) and Facebook.
The benefits of NFV are clear and investment spend on the technology is climbing. However, carriers must make sure that they don’t inadvertently lock themselves into a single, closed software environment. Many NFV products produced by large technology vendors are designed to work homogenously, locking a carrier into their line of products. The real benefit of NFV comes from investing in a selection of best-in-class NFV building blocks, which are each independently designed for a particular purpose within the network. Used in this manner, the technology can empower operators to evolve their networks and services at their own pace, in response to customer demand and ahead of the competition.
Chris Haddock is head of marketing at OpenCloud.
Edited by Alicia Young