Virtualization Featured Article

How Much of the Network Will Be Virtualized, And What Will It Run On?

June 02, 2016

Anybody following network functions virtualization by now understands that NFV is about putting the functionality of network elements that once required appliances into software that can run on industry-standard hardware – and to gain savings and network agility in the process. A recent article by Craig Mathias of the Fairpoint Group, however, raises the question of just how much of the network can be virtualized. To that the analyst answers: almost everything.

The only real infrastructure required, according to Mathias, will be Ethernet switches, which feature router functionality, and Wi-Fi access points. (By the way, according to IDC, the worldwide Ethernet switch market exceeded $6.4 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015, an increase of 3.2 percent year over year and a 5.1 percent quarter over quarter increase. Meanwhile, Infonetics reported last year that nearly 1.2 million 802.11ac access points shipping in the fourth quarter of 2014.)

“Everything else – network management, performance optimization, analytics, security and the SDN controller itself – will be virtualized and provisioned in the cloud,” he noted.

Of course, all of that stuff, and all the virtualized network functions like EPC cores and session border controllers, need to run on something. In many cases, that something is expected to be x86 Intel servers, as you probably already know.

However, as some people have been noting since the rise of NFV and software-defined networking, in certain cases more specialized hardware will be called for. Indeed, I remember a presentation back at Software Telco Congress in November 2013 in which a speaker talked about this. Metaswitch was the sponsor of that event.

At Metaswitch Forum, which took place just last month, the company revisited this theme. CTO Martin Taylor mentioned that in some cases VNFs will require higher performance than x86 can offer. The good news, he added, is that new technology like ARM-based chips from companies like Cavium and intelligent NICs can be used for these purposes.

“NFV is about leveraging commodity hardware,” Taylor said. “The more interesting question is: What is commodity hardware?”

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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