How NFV and Interconnection Can Help You Think Outside the “Box”

Jim Poole

This post originally appeared in Network World on 04/03/18.

Networking used to be all about specialized “boxes,” but that era is fading fast.

By a specialized box, I mean a piece of hardware that was built to perform an individual function. Physical firewalls, routers, servers, load balancers, etc., are all examples of these different boxes, and they are still everywhere. But new technology is seriously disrupting the old ways of doing things.

Virtualization has made it possible to separate the software functionality of all those boxes from the specific appliance-type hardware in which it resides. Network functions virtualization (NFV) software can replicate an appliance’s function in a more cost-effective commodity server, which is easy to obtain and deploy and can hold the software for numerous functions at once. People like the improved simplicity, cost, agility and speed that comes with this change.

In a cloud era, replacing specialized hardware with software all sounds very familiar, but the evolution of NFV over the last few years has ushered in a completely new way of networking. It is, in fact, a radical paradigm shift. The more NFV takes hold, the more the central corporate office, where many of these appliances live, will recede in importance. Meanwhile, the digital edge, where these virtualized networking functions can be more easily deployed close to users, will grow in importance. And a global interconnection platform can get you there.

Virtualization is simplification

What’s so bad about relying on highly specialized boxes, anyway? Until recently, there wasn’t a better option, but as remote offices and data centers increasingly began to multiply in the enterprise, network operators wanted an alternative. In the days before virtualization, they knew that introducing a new function to a network always meant installing a new appliance. That came with procurement, and testing, and ensuring the device was compatible with other equipment, not to mention getting the device to the physical location where it was needed and installing it.

Also, the way most companies tend to buy features is “best-of-breed,” or choosing the top appliance for a given function. That means a company can easily have multiple vendors inside its network, requiring multiple operating systems and multiple consoles to manage everything. In short, things can get messy fast. As NFV has emerged, one of its major draws is that it reduces the complexity and cost that everyone assumed came with networking.

With NFV, there’s no need – for instance – for a company to buy a firewall appliance and install it at it corporate remote office to intercept and weed out suspicious traffic. That’s because a firewall-as-a-service provider can virtualize that network function at the edge of the network and make sure the suspicious traffic is stopped before it can get anywhere near the firm’s clouds, users or on-premises IT. The same kind of efficiency, flexibility, speed and security is realized when other network functions are delivered as a service (e.g., routing-as-a-service, DDoS-as-a-service) right at the digital edge, where most transactions are occurring. Those benefits help explain why ABI Research projects the NFV market to hit $38 billion by 2022, including a 53% compound annual growth rate in Europe.

To be clear, even as virtualization has ascended, network appliances haven’t disappeared just yet. For example, IDC’s latest worldwide quarterly ethernet switch and router trackers showed what the research firm called “modest, continued growth.” (Switches were up 3.2% year-over-year from Q4 2016, routers up 2.4%.) And it’s just a fact that some specialized “boxes” will never go away. The optical equipment that powers the fiber, for instance, will always need to be close to where the fiber is. Still, with virtualization, most service creation will be able to sit in remote, distributed enterprise locations, and that amounts to a revolution.

Essential interconnection at the edge

The digital edge is the best place for all these networking services because it is, by definition, close to where the data is being created, stored and exchanged. Companies in a digital age need that kind of proximity to deliver the level of instant, anytime, anywhere connectivity that users expect. They’re increasingly moving their IT out of centralized corporate data centers and near users, partners and clouds because reducing distance is the only way to reduce latency.

A global, multi-tenant data center platform that specializes in enabling interconnection – private data exchange between businesses – works best for network service delivery because it can take users and providers wherever they need to be and bring them together. A multi-tenant data center environment also hosts multiple cloud providers, network providers and enterprises. And some data center providers like Equinix offer cloud-powered solutions that allow businesses to instantly connect with any one of these players all over the world. (Ours is called the Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric.) That’s ideal for any company wanting to deliver or consume NFV services.

Networking virtualization enables companies to think outside the “box,” if you’ll forgive the pun. A global interconnection platform like Platform Equinix™ makes sure they can maximize their opportunities once they get there.

Check out the Platform Equinix Vision Paper to read how this digital business platform takes businesses everywhere they need to be, for innovation, transformation and growth.