Virtualization Featured Article

Addressing the Challenges of Network Functions Virtualization

October 30, 2018
By Special Guest
Daniel Proch, vice president of Product Management, Napatech -

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) are not new ideas, but they still have not yet reached their full potential. Industry professionals are interested in these methods because they free organizations from prepackaged, expensive hardware-software bundles. These technologies are potential industry disruptors, but they still have some challenges that must be addressed.

Traditionally, custom-designed, physical hardware and software were the template that data centers, mobile operators and enterprises have built their network infrastructure on. Example applications include network gateways, switches, routers, network load balancers, varied mobile applications in the mobile core and radio access network such as vEPC (virtual evolved packet core), vCPE (virtual customer premise equipment), vRAN (virtual Radio Access Network) and security applications like firewalls, NGFW, IDS/IPS, SSL/IPsec offload appliances, DLP and antivirus applications, to name just a few. 

The vision of NFV is that instead of acquiring and deploying custom networking devices for these varied applications, operators would prefer to support these functions as software applications, called virtualized network functions (VNFs), running on virtual machines or in containers on standard servers rather than buying proprietary appliances to run each networking application. Moving away from discrete, customized architectures to a more consolidated “x86-only architecture” promises to reduce costs, simplify deployment and management of net­working infrastructure, widen supplier choice and, ultimately, enable horizontal scale-out in the networking and security market.

For the most part, it is just not possible to assume that applications in software on standard platforms are going to be able to meet the throughput and latency demands that applications require without throwing significant CPU resources at the problem. Operators are realizing that the cost savings that NFV promises are offset by the need to deploy entire racks of compute resources at a problem that a single appliance could previously support. The CPU and server costs, rack space and power required to meet the same performance footprint of a dedicated solution ends up being as expensive as or more than custom-designed alternatives. The vision of dramatically lower total cost of ownership and operational simplicity are still a dream on the horizon.

The Need for a New Network: 5G

The performance and scaling problems that operators face with generic NFV infrastructure (NFVi) will only be worsened by 5G networks. The move to 5G brings new requirements to mobile networks, creating its own version of hyperscale networking that is needed to meet the performance goals for the technology, but at the right economy scale. Numerous factors are fundamentally unique to 5G networks when compared to previous 3G/4G instantiations of mobile protocols. The shorter the distance, the higher the frequency – thus, the more bandwidth that can be driven over the wireless network.

A huge uptick in the number of users/devices (both human and IoT) is also fundamental to 5G, which fundamentally affects the number of unique flows in the network and necessitates very low latency requirements. 5G also promises lower energy/cost than previous mobile technologies. These 5G goals, when realized, will drive the application of wireless communications to completely new areas never seen before.

Operators have realized that to scale virtualized networking functions to meet performance goals requires dataplane acceleration based on FPGA-based SmartNICs. This technique offloads the x86 processors that are hosting the varied VNFs to support the breadth of services promised.

The highest-performing and most secure method of deploying VNFs has proven to be SmartNIC acceleration of virtual switching. Virtual machines (VMs) can use accelerated packet I/O and guaranteed traffic isolation via hardware while maintaining vSwitch functionality. FPGA-based SmartNICs specialize in the match/action processing required for vSwitches and can offload critical security processing, freeing up CPU resources for VNF applications. Functions like virtual switching, flow classification, filtering, intelligent load balancing and encryption/decryption can all be performed in the SmartNIC and offloaded from the x86 processor housing the VNFs while, through technologies like VirtIO, be transparent to the VNF, providing a common management and orchestration layer to the network fabric.

Reinventing Business

The days of fixed-function, hardened, expensive, slow-to-maneuver and costly-to-operate networking and security solutions are gone. The technique to overcome the challenges that are facing NFV deployments requires reconfigurable computing platforms based on standard servers capable of offloading and accelerating compute-intensive workloads, either in an inline or look-aside model to appropriately distribute workloads between x86 general-purpose processors and software-reconfigurable, FPGA-based SmartNICs optimized for virtualized environments.

Combining FPGA-based SmartNICs that are capable of supporting the most demanding requirements with general-purpose COTS server platforms enables network applications to operate at hundreds of gigabits of throughput with support for many millions of simultaneous flows. With this unique architecture leveraging the benefits of COTS hardware for networking applications, the vision of NFV is not over the horizon but is clearly attainable.

SDN and NFV hold great promise, but they must be handled properly if organizations want to reap their benefits without degrading performance. This requires a reconfigurable computing platform architecture that quickly deploys new applications and services, enabling companies to reinvent themselves and their businesses.

About the author: Daniel Proch is VP of product management at Napatech and has over 20 years’ experience in the IT and networking industry. Prior to joining Napatech in 2017, Daniel was Sr. director of product management and solutions architecture at Netronome. Prior to that he was manager of network solutions and principal engineer, office of the CTO at Ericsson. He has an MS in Information Science/Telecommunications from the University of Pittsburgh and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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