What is network function virtualization?

By | 2 minute read | February 21, 2018

IBM’s new Martian friend just landed on Earth and is excited to learn about all the latest developments in human technology. In this Q&A series, IBM experts explain complicated topics to our Martian (and you).

I can’t listen in on a conversation about the telecommunications industry here on Earth without hearing about network function virtualization.

But just what is it exactly? I didn’t know. To find out, I spoke with Steve Teitzel, a Global Solution Exec for IBM in the telecommunications industry, and Charlie Arteaga, a distinguished engineer at IBM.

So, let’s get right to it. What is network function virtualization?

Arteaga: To simplify it, network function virtualization — or NFV — is essentially when service providers take network functions that were once implemented in hardware and instead implement them virtually with software. Providers can then either tie those functions together themselves, or get a third party like IBM to do it for them.

What kind of functions are we talking about here?

Teitzel: Routing, firewalling, encryption, load balancing — it’s a wide range.

What’s the problem with using hardware for those network functions?

Teitzel: In the past, when service providers wanted to establish communication between two locations, they needed boxes at each end. And the more capability they wanted, the more boxes they needed to install at the end points. Installing that extra hardware is time-consuming and expensive, and it makes upgrades difficult.

What’s the advantage of using software instead of hardware?

Teitzel: With software, providers get a low-cost environment put up at a much faster rate to enable communication. And they can scale that communication up much faster than they could before.

NFV can also pave the way for innovation, right?

Arteaga: Essentially, because of the flexibility of this new environment, providers can easily create new services customers never thought about before, and turn services on and off for customers quickly.

What has NFV’s impact on the industry been so far?

Teitzel: We’re beginning to see the ability to deploy services in minutes and hours instead of days and months. That’s a huge thing. The second thing we’re beginning to see is the ability to deploy those services in a space that’s able to be run much more efficiently than before. Instead of needing five boxes, providers only put in one box and they can run everything there.

How will customers feel the difference when NFV is more widespread?

Arteaga: Traditionally, customers would subscribe to network services and they were pretty much locked in to them in a fixed way. In the future, when more providers have a very dynamic way to change bandwidth and other characteristics of the network without changing any hardware, that will allow customers from a financial perspective to more precisely focus on the services they need where they need them.

Makes a lot of sense! Thanks, Earthlings.