Luis Jorge Romero: The industry is now looking for standards
that move beyond simply developing the NFV concept, and
that are enablers to the deployment of NFV-based services in
It is hard to ignore the shift in thinking on how telecoms
operators will plan, build and operate the networks of
tomorrow. The industry is seeing a radical change in network
design from the traditional collections of proprietary hardware
boxes, to a more dynamic collection of software components
running on commercial, off-the-shelf hardware.
Software defined networking and network functions
virtualisation are the enabling technologies for this. They are
two complimentary concepts that have been promoted by both the
IT and the telecoms industries.
Now as the pace increases, and we start to see announcements of
the first commercial products coming to market, what about the
With service providers planning the roll-out of NFV enabled
services, the questions of reliability, scalability and
interoperability are coming to the fore.
The dominant type of traffic carried by telecoms networks has
changed in a short space of time from simple voice connections
to massive amounts of data generated by video streaming
services and by connecting the applications running on billions
of smart phones. This is pushing network operators to
drastically rethink their network architectures.
Adapting to these new traffic demands isn’t simply
a question of provisioning a bigger pipe: it will require an
expansion and re-conception of the infrastructure and a
complete re-think on how new networks will be provisioned and
managed in order to meet new traffic needs.
Network technologies have evolved along the years. Though in
the beginning each specific function in the network required
specific, tailormade hardware and software, in
today’s IP world all network functions can be
decomposed into three basic actions: process, storage and
This means that providing these three basic elements through
commercial off-the-shelf hardware, on which a more dynamic
collection of software components can run, will enable the
building of any functionality a network operator might require.
In principle, using COTS hardware and building applications on
top of it will reduce the dependency on expensive proprietary
hardware platforms, which in turn should result in a clear
reduction of capital and operational expense.
However as the business models and potential markets begin to
take form, the more subtle benefits of network agility and new
service deployment are now being promoted as the real
motivations for operators to make the leap of faith in NFV and
Before and after: with NFV and SDN, operators can reduce
creating new services using software integration techniques,
then validating and
deploying to the customer much faster
In traditional networks, the provisioning of business services
can take many weeks or months. Add to that the need for new
supporting infrastructure, development time and integration
testing, and the real delay before a service is delivered can
reach six months to a year. By applying a more dynamic approach
enabled by NFV and SDN, operators can reduce deployment times,
creating new services using software integration techniques,
then validating and deploying to the customer much faster.
Network virtualisation, network functions virtualisation and
software defined networking are complementary concepts that
offer new ways to design, deploy and manage telecoms networks
and business services.
Network virtualisation is used to create tunnels or overlays of
network infrastructure that separate the logical topology from
the physical topology. Network virtualisation relates to the
consolidation of multiple physical networks into one virtual
network or indeed the logical segmentation of a single physical
network into multiple logical networks, each with defined
minimum quality of service levels.
Partitions may be dynamically added in order to rapidly
dimension the network in response to changing business needs.
SDN simplifies networks operations by separating the control
plane from the data plane. The control function is abstracted
— or moved — to a software-based controller
which communicates with the underlying network elements via
standardised data-plane abstraction protocols such as OpenFlow
and/or clearly defined application programming interfaces.
NFV evolves the IT network virtualisation technologies to
consolidate many network equipment types onto industry-standard
high-volume servers, switches and storage.
NFV involves implementing traditional network functions as
software that can run on industry standard server hardware, and
that can be deployed to various locations in the network as
required without the need to install new proprietary equipment.
Examples of such proprietary hardware include routers,
firewalls, deep packet inspection devices, content delivery
network appliances, network address translators, session border
controllers, mobile base station controllers, to name but a
NFV and SDN are highly complementary technologies, not
dependent on each other. NFV can be implemented without an SDN
being required — and vice versa, although the two
concepts and solutions can be combined and greater value
Both technologies aim to reduce equipment costs and decrease
time to market while increasing the agility of the network to
respond to dynamic requirements.
The goals of NFV can be achieved using non-SDN mechanisms,
relying on the techniques currently in use in many datacentres.
But approaches relying on SDN can enhance performance, simplify
compatibility with existing deployments, and facilitate
operation and maintenance procedures.
NFV can bring value to SDN deployments by providing the
infrastructure upon which the SDN software can be run.
Furthermore, NFV aligns closely with the SDN objectives to use
commodity servers and switches.
While network operators have been investigating the possibility
of running network-type workflows on standard industry servers
for a number of years, only recently has the industry converged
to develop a common framework on which operators, hardware and
software suppliers could begin to develop, build and implement
It started in October 2012 when 13 tier-one network operators
from around the globe issued a call for action to the industry
in the form of their first white paper on NFV. The operators
firmly believed that NFV would increase network performance and
capabilities more cost-effectively than before, and they stated
their commitment to this approach.
A few months after the publication of this first white paper,
the same group of operators led the creation of a new industry
specification group on NFV within the European
Telecommunications Standards Institute. This group, open to
all, was set up to develop requirements and architecture
specifications for the hardware and software infrastructure
required to support virtualised functions, as well as to
provide guidelines for developing virtualised network
functions. The group will incorporate existing virtualisation
technologies and standards and will coordinate with other
Today membership of the NFV ISG has rapidly expanded to over
215 member organisations, 34 of which are network operators.
While 88 of these organisations are members of ETSI, the other
127 are not — but nevertheless ETSI grants them access
to the NFV group as participating organisations.
Although the group has been in existence for only 20 months,
the result of their work has already greatly influenced the NFV
landscape and the publication of the first five NFV
specifications in October 2013 has provided other standards
bodies with a roadmap for NFV related work.
The five published documents include four ETSI group
specifications covering NFV use cases, requirements, the
architectural framework and terminology. The fifth group
specification defines a framework for co-ordinating and
promoting proof of concept platforms illustrating key aspects
There is now an ambitious programme to ensure the completion of
the remaining work. It is expected that the 16 specifications
still pending will all be published before the end of the year.
The activity around the proof of concept demonstrations is
equally important, as it helps to build industrial awareness
and confidence in NFV as a viable technology, as well as
developing a diverse and open NFV ecosystem.
The NFV ISG proofs of concept are based upon agreed use cases
and they address the technical challenges and approaches being
progressed by the group. To date, 21 multi-vendor proofs of
concept have been demonstrated, covering almost 95% of the
agreed NFV use cases.
Industry wide cooperation
Since its creation the NFV group has actively cooperated with a
number of standards bodies and industry forums. The
group’s work also embraces the open-source
community in addition to the more traditional standards bodies.
It has recognised that open-source communities — for
instance OpenStack, Apache CloudStack and the Linux
Foundation’s OpenDaylight software-defined
networking project — will be relevant to NFV.
ETSI has signed a cooperation agreement with the Open
Networking Foundation in an effort to align the standards work
of SDN and NFV, and bring the results to a wider community.
Now that the group is moving into the next phase of standards
development, the requirements for the work are becoming well
defined. The industry is now looking for standards that move
beyond simply developing the NFV concept, and that are enablers
to the deployment of NFV-based services in the network.
For the development of such standards, the industry is once
again looking to ETSI to consolidate the work done to date and
build upon the community already present in the NFV group.
Maintaining the critical mass, the momentum of standards
development and the clear focus on industry needs are key to
the success of the NFV ISG’s work.
We are witnessing a radical change in the way networks will be
planned, built, operated and maintained. This will enable new
business models and opportunities, not just for the benefit of
network operators or consumers, but for the entire ICT sector
and this will further open the doors to easier cross-sector
cooperation. It is in our hands to make a success of it. ETSI
is absolutely committed to this, and to working in close
cooperation with every interested stakeholder.
Luis Jorge Romero is the director general of ETSI, which
produces globally-applicable standards for information and
communications technologies, including fixed, mobile, radio,
converged, aeronautical, broadcast and internet technologies.
Officially recognised by the European Union as a European
standards organisation, ETSI is an independent, not-for-profit
association whose more than 700 member companies and
organisations, drawn from 63 countries across five continents
worldwide, determine its work programme and participate
directly in its work.
Its documents on NFV are available at www.etsi.org/nfv