NFV and the Evolving Role of the Network Architect

Jordan Dukes

Network functions virtualization (NFV) brings the benefits of virtualization technology to the deployment of network services. With NFV, purpose-built hardware devices such as routers, firewalls, SD-WAN, VPN terminators, session border controllers (SBC), intrusion detection and prevention, network address translation (NAT) and load balancers are replaced by virtual network functions (VNFs). These VNFs run on high-performance standard server platforms and can be provisioned on-premises, in cloud-providers’ data centers, at colocation data centers and even in remote branch offices. Virtual network functions can be combined to create a completely virtualized environment. Multiple virtual network functions can run on a single server, making this approach to provisioning network services highly-efficient and cost-effective.

NFV Forces Network Architects to Think Different(ly)

Network architects accustomed to designing network topology and deploying network services based on hardware devices now have to rethink their approach to network design and service deployment. In today’s widely-distributed cloud environments, with a greater number of options that provide network services and the ease of deploying virtual network functions, the role of network architects is evolving.

Network architects now assume greater responsibility for understanding the business requirements and translating them into the appropriate network design, using hardware and software to deliver the required reliability, security and performance.

Virtual Network Functions: Ease of Deployment  

The immediate benefit of virtual network functions is ease of deployment. VNFs, available from colocation data center and interconnection providers like Equinix, can be selected and deployed in minutes, with no additional hardware requirements. On-demand deployment allows network architects to easily combine virtual network functions from different vendors as part of a single workflow to support the required network functionality and performance.

Virtual Network Functions or Hardware?

From years of designing and implementing networks, architects are well versed in the functionality and performance of network hardware devices. Initially, the performance of virtual network functions was a concern due to the data plane throughput requirements of the server and virtual switching infrastructure. However, improvements in OVS (Open vSwitch) and the introduction of technologies such as DPDK, VPP & SR-IOV have improved performance over the last several years to allow for higher performance VNFs to be deployed and linked together in a service chain.Now that an increasing number of network services are available as virtual network functions, network architects need to review their specifications, understand their capabilities and determine the appropriate uses for each.

A few examples illustrate the need for architects to expand their technical knowledge as they make decisions that impact network performance and economics.

  • Should a virtual network function replace a network hardware device that is fully amortized, yet has additional years of service?
  • When expanding into new geography by building a new data center is it better to deploy network hardware or take a network functions virtualization approach?
  • When network throughput and performance must exceed a critical threshold, will a virtualized network function deliver the same or better performance—100Gbps with low latency, scalability, five 9s or better reliability, work with existing network hardware—as a proven network hardware device?
  • Should the company standardize on a core set of virtual network functions for future network buildout or decide on a case-by-case basis?
  • When several VNF vendors offer a similar product, which will best meet a specific network requirement?

Of course, there will be situations in which the network functions virtualization approach is clearly the best choice, such as:

  • The need to rapidly expand services or launch new products via hosting in a cloud provider’s data center.
  • Responding to corporate data intrusion attempts emanating from a branch office by deploying a remote firewall at a colocation data center.
  • Installing a virtual router for short-term testing of a new application hosted on one cloud provider and accessing a database maintained on a different cloud provider.

Virtual network functions give network architects a wider selection of options when designing networks and place added responsibility on architects to understand the technical characteristics of VNFs.

Test Drive Virtual Network Functions

An added benefit of the network virtualized functions approach is the ability to quickly test drive virtual network functions. For example, you can register for a 14-day free trial of Cisco’s CSR1000v vRouter via the Equinix Network Edge Free Trial. In minutes you can deploy, configure and connect the Cisco virtual router to your environment and evaluate its capabilities and performance.

The opportunity to test virtual network functions gives network architects hands-on experience in understanding their capabilities. By including virtual network functions in their toolbox, network architects gain greater flexibility in the selection and deployment of network services. With proper selection and deployment, VNFs can also have the potential to reduce network management overhead and CapEx.

Network Architects Must Evolve With the Complexity

Although network functions virtualization is transforming how networks are architected and implemented, topological variations and the number of components that comprise widely-distributed cloud environments will challenge a network architect’s skills.

Designing, implementing and supporting networks requires now requires a broader range of technical knowledge and the ability to decide when and where specific network components are best deployed. Is it a hardware device or VNF?  Performance characteristics, ability to integrate with existing network hardware, evolving NFV standards, economic tradeoffs—network architects must now consider these factors in the design of new networks or expansion of existing networks. Network functions virtualization gives network architects a broader range of options that offer greater agility, flexibility and adaptability in designing and delivering network services.

Explore VNF Capabilities with Equinix

Equinix offers an increasing number of NFV solutions integrated directly to our ecosystems of network providers, cloud providers and enterprises. Running on Platform Equinix, Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric directly, securely and dynamically connects distributed infrastructure and digital ecosystems via global, software-defined interconnections.

Learn more about the capabilities and benefits of network functions virtualization by visiting www.equinix.com/services/edge-services/network-edge/

Jordan Dukes
Jordan Dukes Senior Principal Practice Lead Equinix Professional Services Topics: Distributed Data