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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Network Functions Virtualization: 101

I've often seen this topic being discussed on Technically Speaking and for a while I've been curious to understand more about the technology and its applications. So I decided to take an observer's perspective and explore the ideas that uniquely form network functions virtualization (NFV). I wanted to not only achieve a personal understanding, but also to share the key concepts surrounding the technology with others.

Virtual Computing

virtual (/ˈvəːtʃʊəl / adjective)

computing (/kəmˈpjuːtɪŋ / noun)

-    not physically existing, as such, but made by software to appear to do so

Being Logical

I really do like the definition provided above – it succinctly captures the whole premise of virtualization as it’s used in today’s IT industry. What’s more, the notion of virtualization isn’t entirely new – it was conceived as far back as the 1960s, when methods were employed in the computing industry to logically divide system resources, such as those of a hard disk or other storage mediums. Similarly, server virtualization is the capacity to abstract a server’s computing ability into one or more logical entities, in turn, spreading the workload across them. Likewise, with operating systems such as Microsoft Windows 10, it’s possible to create numerous virtual desktops, which further extends the virtualization concept.

In IT today, network virtualization is the ability to take a large physical network and establish multiple smaller logical networks, along with numerous physical local area networks, which can be combined to form a larger logical network – although this isn’t network functions virtualization. More specifically, network functions virtualization uses similar principles to typical IT virtualization techniques but there’s a tad more to explain …

Technically Speaking

In essence, NFV is a virtualization concept injected with an unstable amount of steroids, since its objective is to eliminate or reduce the dependency for dedicated hardware that would ordinarily support a network infrastructure and, instead, replace it with software. “Yeah!” – think Tom Jones, as I exclaimed that with brazen confidence!

NFV empowers implementers to revolutionise how they choose to deploy, design and manage their network infrastructure. The complexity often associated with deploying network address translation, firewalls and domain name services is simplified through the use of software. Utilising standard IT virtualization methods, as I discussed earlier, enables the consolidation of networking components that typically comprise such an infrastructure, in turn, providing a fully supported virtualized infrastructure.

Understanding the Benefits

The virtualization of your infrastructure naturally provides benefits that will reduce both capital and operational expenditure, since the network services that typically provide and support physical components can now be deployed using software. For example, network administrators will no longer need to purchase actual equipment as capacity can be added through software. Likewise, if an application running on a virtual machine requires additional resources, it can be relocated to another physical or virtual machine to share the workload.

Similarly, there is a reduced dependency on special purpose hardware, as more generic hardware can be used to support your network, giving you both the flexibility and scalability of providing services ad hoc. Perhaps above all else, provisioning services when and where you need them, as well as providing automated delivery, is what really solidifies the value of NFV.

The Final Pitch

You see, networking devices of various guises have been around for a number of decades and with NFV, such devices can be replaced as and when new features or services are introduced, albeit virtually. Similarly, whether you’re in a bedroom, a small business or a large enterprise serving hundreds or thousands of users, you no longer need to purchase network equipment in volume – equipment that could quickly become outdated anyway.

Well, I’m hoping my observer’s glance – a newbie look at NFV, if you will – has helped you better understand the concept behind the technology. Most importantly, though, I’ve learned a lot about those previously beleaguered IT administrators, who now have the ability to swap or exchange devices with a mere software update. It takes some initial lateral thinking to grasp the concept that such ‘physical’ devices can be replaced by software but, then again, those physical devices ultimately provide a service normally delivered by software. It seems a natural evolution to remove the need for the hardware and replace it instead with something ever evolving that doesn’t just mimic, but behaves in exactly the same way – genius, I think!

Until Next Time …

I’m still wrapped up in my various book projects and need to discipline myself regarding my calendar (or should that be my time keeping?). I receive constant notifications from Outlook reminding me that I’ve failed to meet numerous deadlines – damn! Note to self: “Must do better!”

So, this is where a self-scolding Dr. G signs off.

Originally published in Technically Speaking.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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