SDN vs NFV: Understanding Their Differences, Similarities and Benefits

Andrea Leonhardt
SDN vs NFV: Understanding Their Differences, Similarities and Benefits

Virtualization is enabling network architects to design, implement, and manage network services far more efficiently than ever before. Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are two of the key capabilities fostering this transformation. In this blog we briefly explain the concepts, comparing SDN vs NFV, and show how and why their complementary capabilities should be part of every enterprise’s network strategy.

Software-defined networking (SDN) manages networks by separating the control plane from the forwarding plane. Architects and administrators use software to configure and manage network functions via a centralized control point. This approach creates dynamic, agile, and scalable networks that use the virtualized infrastructure of modern data centers to respond rapidly to changing business requirements.

Network functions virtualization (NFV) decouples network functions from proprietary hardware appliances (routers, firewalls, VPN terminators, SD-WAN, etc.) and delivers equivalent network functionality without the need for specialized hardware. These virtual network functions (VNF) run on high-performance x86 servers and offer the distinct advantage of on-demand deployment.

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SDN vs NFV: Similarities

In many ways, SDN and NFV are interdependent, but when deployed together can achieve flexible, agile network infrastructures. NFV provides the basic networking functions and SDN assumes higher-level management responsibility to orchestrate overall network operations.

DeploymentRunning on virtual machines, hypervisors, network controllers, load balancers and gateways are deployed and configured to provide the needed network infrastructure controls.A wide range of virtualized network functions such as routers, firewalls and SD-WAN are deployed as software on top of virtualized infrastructure.
Management Centralized control console to monitor throughput, routing and policy definitions.Virtual network functions are centrally managed and monitored regardless of where they are located across the network.
CostsThe primary cost savings come from the reduction of operational expenses through the automation of network configuration, adds and changes. Personnel costs account for much of the overall spend, so a small reduction in operational costs can lead to a significant cost-benefit.Running on high-performance servers in data centers, VNFs eliminate the need to procure specialized network hardware for each individual network function.  This allows for less space, power, cooling and equipment to be deployed.
FlexibilityEasily adjust network-wide traffic flow in anticipation of, or in response to, changing business needs.

Programmable interfaces enable provisioning of new network devices, reconfiguration of existing devices via scripting and/or management consoles.

Quickly deploy and decommission functions to support proof-of-concept trials. Locate functions at the network edge, close to data, applications and users to optimize network security and performance.

SDN vs NFV: Differences

SDN and NFV have much in common, based on the concept of virtualization that drives the development and deployment of their capabilities. Major differences between the two concern the overall focus network management responsibilities and the standards that guide architectural and functional development.

ScopeDefines the big-picture aspects of the entire network—the type of infrastructure, services and applications available. Determines network policies that guide the delivery and use of network resources. Hypervisor orchestrates and controls lower-level network functions.Deliver a wide range of specific functionalities that must be performed at all levels and stages of a network – at the periphery, boundary and core—under the control of a hypervisor
Standards Open Network Foundation seeks to develop “various open standards, as well as vendor-neutral standards, for the communications interface defined between the control and forwarding layers of an SDN architecture.”


European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) defines and maintains “globally applicable standards for information and telecommunications technologies regarding NFV.”

Equinix Helps Enterprises Worldwide Realize the Benefits of SDN and NFV

Equinix can help enterprises accelerate their adoption of SDN and NFV. Equinix offers the world’s largest SDN-based dynamically interconnected ecosystem with more than 200 data centers across 5 continents. Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric™ (ECX Fabric™) securely connects thousands of cloud and network providers to reach business partners around the world.

Network Edge services from Equinix provides a digital marketplace of vendor-neutral, virtual network functions, allowing customers to select, deploy and connect both network and security devices in minutes. Network Edge is integrated with ECX Fabric, enabling rapid deployment of network functions without the need of physical data center deployment or hardware requirements.

Virtual Network Functions Deployed Across a SDN-Based Global Network

Virtual network functions deployed via Network Edge are enabling enterprises to take advantage of SDN capabilities to modernize networks deliver new services, establishing new connections, and optimizing performance.

  • Cloud-to-cloud routing—Virtual routers deployed at Equinix data centers eliminate backhaul delays by establishing secure, ultra-low latency connections between applications and data hosted in two different clouds.
  • Hybrid cloud firewall—Virtual firewalls protect corporate networks from attacks from public-facing applications hosted on public clouds.
  • Branch-to-cloud SD-WAN—Use interconnection hubs at Equinix to optimize connectivity between distributed branch locations, cloud providers and SaaS providers.

Enterprises worldwide can quickly take advantage of the complementary capabilities of SDN and NFV without the need for significant CapEx by using global infrastructure and market-leading network services. Network architects interested in learning how easily virtual network functions can be deployed across the ECX Fabric are encouraged to register for the free Network Edge trial.