NFV bringing radical change in way networks will be planned, built, operated and maintained

Published on:

NFV is changing the business of telecoms, writes Luis Jorge Romero, and more than 200 organisations are collaborating to ensure hardware and software work together

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
the network 
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 standards?

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 switching.

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 SDN. 

Before and after: with NFV and SDN, operators can reduce deployment times,
creating new services using software integration techniques, then validating and
deploying to the customer much faster 

Development time

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.

Simplified operations

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 few.

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 potentially achieved.

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.

Industry convergence

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 NFV.

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 standards committees.

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 of NFV.

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.

Next steps

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