The Evolution of Networks from Hardware to Software Using Virtualization

An increasing number of things once manifested as physical are rapidly becoming digital. Digital photography has virtually eliminated film and transformed the creation, distribution and consumption of media. When information can be found in seconds via a Google search there’s no need for a bookshelf of encyclopedias. It’s rare to find a printed map when GPS devices and applications can guide you down the road or around the world.

A similar transformation is taking place in the way that networks are being implemented. In the recent past, a network was a collection or combination of purpose-built switches, routers, modems, bridges, gateways, firewalls and security devices. Along with servers and storage, network hardware was centralized in on-premises data centers.

Network implementation, expansion or upgrades were typically a protracted process. The evaluation, selection, procurement, installation and configuration of network hardware devices took weeks to months, depending on the scope of the project and size of the organization. Those practices were tolerable when network infrastructure was primarily contained in on-premises data centers.

In today’s environment, where network infrastructure needs to support geographic expansion and dynamically respond to varying throughput demands of commerce, media, voice and IoT applications, protracted methods of network implementation and management are no longer adequate.

Virtualization Is Transforming the Economics of IT Management

Virtualization allows software to run independently of the underlying hardware. Virtualization is enabled by software that emulates specific hardware or devices. Removing the requirement that software run on specific hardware has allowed IT organizations to use commodity servers to run the entire software stack, from operating systems to custom-built software applications. There’s less need for specialized hardware, and software can be deployed independently of hardware. The result is lower overall hardware (CapEx) and IT management (OpEx) costs.

Virtualization Is the Foundation for Cloud Computing

The most prominent result of virtualization is cloud computing. Cloud computing has allowed organizations of any size—home-based businesses to global enterprises—to host any variety of software applications, services and storage in the data centers of cloud service providers. Economies of scale enable cloud service providers to offer IT resources at lower costs in comparison to the costs of acquiring and managing these resources in an organization’s on-premises data center.

Virtualization in a cloud environment also makes it easy for an organization to scale up or scale down in response to business dynamics. Additional servers and storage can be allocated in minutes to meet changing demand. Globally distributed cloud data centers provide the added benefit of the ability to provision resources and software in several locations closer to the end-users resulting in reduced latency and optimized application performance.

Network Functions: From Hardware to Software

The benefits of virtualization now extend to the network infrastructure. Virtualization has enabled network functions to evolve from purpose-built hardware devices to software, known as network functions virtualization (NFV), providing the same capability and running on commodity servers. The adoption of NFVs has significant momentum, as ABI Research projects the NFV Market to Reach $38 Billion by 2022.

In contrast to the procurement and installation process required for purpose-built network hardware devices, network functions such as routers, controllers, firewalls, load balancers, VPN Terminators and WAN accelerators can now be implemented more efficiently. Enterprises employing private, public or hybrid cloud environments, especially those with widely distributed networks, are well-positioned to take advantage of NFVs.

Virtual Networking Optimizes Management and Performance

Network functions virtualization allows enterprises to rapidly deploy network services where and when needed to optimize network management and performance. By coupling virtual network functions with providers like Equinix who provide access to hundreds of network and cloud service providers, an enterprise can implement a wide range of network services in minutes.

For example, an enterprise expanding to new geography needs to connect between cloud providers, for an appllcation that spans multiple clouds. With NFV, connecting these two cloud environments is as simple as:

  1. Deploying the vRouter on their own network infrastructure or on Platform Equinix.
  2. Establishing router connectivity between the two cloud environments, using Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric.

A few additional use-case examples help illustrate the ease and convenience of virtual network deployment.

  • In the instance of a business expanding to a new, remote market, it requires a firewall “at the edge” as a first means of defense against unauthorized access. With NFV the firewall is deployed virtually, without any concern for delays associated with network hardware devices.
  • In anticipation of hosting a new application across several cloud service provider data centers, provision load balancers to optimize application traffic among the data centers. Network performance can then be monitored to determine the optimum number and locations of load balancers.

NFV gives enterprises tremendous flexibility in the deployment of network services. Virtual networking also supports temporary needs, such as when mergers or acquisitions require software integration or cloud-to-cloud migration.

Virtual Networking: Evolution Brings Benefits

Virtualization has transformed IT management, eliminating hardware dependence for operating systems and applications, enabling the cloud revolution and now transforming the way networks are implemented and managed. When comparing network hardware against network functions virtualization, it’s clear that NFVs deliver unquestionable advantages. NFV market growth confirms the recognized benefits.

Network Hardware Network Virtualization Functions
Protracted procurement cycle Rapid deployment, often in minutes
Requires on-site installation Deployed remotely
Scalability requires additional hardware Scales easily, up and down
Hardware is a capital expense Software offers flexible licensing options

Organizations seeking greater flexibility in the deployment and management of widely distributed IT resources, optimized network performance and reduced CapEx requirements should take advantage of the benefits of network functions virtualization.

Equinix plans to help enterprises worldwide realize the benefits of network functions virtualization by providing NFV solutions integrated directly to our ecosystems of cloud, network and communications providers. Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric running on Platform Equinix directly, securely and dynamically connects distributed infrastructure and digital ecosystems via global, software-defined interconnections.

Accelerate your progress toward greater efficiency in network implementation and performance. Learn more about the capabilities and benefits of network functions virtualization by visiting

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