CTO Blog: Network Function Virtualization

March 7, 2016
Network Function Virtualization (NFV)
Network Function Virtualization (NFV)

By Arshad Syed, Senior Core Architect, Brian T. Kassa, Director of Technology Planning and Development, Steven Yuen, Senior Core Engineer

The IT industry is going through a paradigm shift and is enamored with the technical elegance of cloud platforms. These cloud platforms use software virtualization layers to abstract physical objects like servers, switch ports and disk volumes into flexible entities that can be shared and allocated to applications and users as needed. Business executives are interested in how software defined data centers and the cloud can give them a competitive advantage.

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are pursuing virtualization strategies in order to prepare their networks for future workloads and business models. Network Function Virtualization (NFV) technology decouples network resources and network elements from underlying hardware. 4G core applications are the best suited for virtualization and can be abstracted from hardware to run on commercial off-the-shelf carrier cloud infrastructure. The 4G core, or Evolved Packet Core (EPC), is one of the most attractive parts of the network to virtualize because it offers an opportunity to create a service-oriented architecture.

The key drivers for NFV technology in telecommunications are cost efficiency, speed and elasticity of deployment, service innovation and agility. Inspired by the flexible, elastic approach to networking being developed in the cloud, operators see an opportunity to leverage NFV technology to re-engineer the 4G wireless network. However, there are differences between MNOs and cloud providers. MNOs are inherently distributed, can be very large-scale, are multiservice and have specific regulatory, reliability, and performance requirements. To address the unique nature of telecommunications networks, operators have formed the NFV group within the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to develop the requirements, frameworks and processes needed to commercialize the technology.

The nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) is another potential example of the NFV industry trend. It is anticipated to provide better coverage while staying closely aligned with the technical progress in the commercial marketplace. Public safety agencies, however, have specific security and performance needs that should be encompassed in any NFV solution. Networks for public safety should be scalable based on increased demand for capacity during any emergency event. A virtualized core network hosted in the cloud would, in theory, be attractive because of its scalability. The ability to dynamically manage Quality of Service, Priority and Preemption (QPP) for the NPSBN in an inherently unpredictable environment is vital for public saftey. 4G signaling applications, such as policy servers, subscriber databases and IP Media Subsystem, may be the best candidates to be virtualized in the core network. These server-based applications are relatively straightforward to port to a virtualized environment.

NFV is a technical trend that should be incorporated into the NPSBN to provide local agencies with flexibility and FirstNet with financial and technical benefits. NFV reduces the hardware, power, and space requirements to deploy network functions through the use of industry-standard high-volume servers, switches and storage. NFV also makes the network applications portable and upgradeable with software, and it allows public safety the agility and scalability to tackle the needs and trends of the future as they arise. Therefore, NFV and its associated technologies should be considered for the development and deployment of the NPSBN.

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