Start investigations now for network virtualisation

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Microsoft define virtualisation as: ‘computer-generated versions of hardware, operating systems, storage devices and more.’ In our daily lives we’re familiar with downloading new apps to our smartphone; giving our mobile devices new functions.

What is network virtualisation?

When it comes to applying this concept to Enterprise networks Gartner define it as: ‘Network function virtualization (NFV) entails the virtualisation of network functions (such as firewalls, WAN optimization, SD-WAN and routing) that can be deployed as software on open server platforms or gray boxes, as opposed to traditionally deployed on dedicated physical appliances.’

But if you were to take Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Enterprise Networking, 2019 at face value you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re 2 to 5 years from ‘productivity’. NFV has actually been around for many years and is already deployed in service provider’s core networks, data-centres or in the hyperscale cloud. What’s not yet common is NFV actively used at the branch.

Why is virtualisation important to the global enterprise?

- the top four benefits to the enterprise:

1.      Simple and instant deployment

2.      Central control for updates and deployment

3.      Lower capital and licence costs

4.      Future-proofed solutions

What Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) shares with SD-WAN is the promise of greater agility in delivering network services. At BT, however, we have here-and-now use cases that show why every organisation needs to plan for NFV and how it might benefit their business.

NFV at the branch site

Right now, we have customers using elements of NFV in our core network for security and acceleration; others have deployed our NFV-ready Agile Connect SD-WAN solution in branch offices. This enables break out to the internet without the need for pre-existing routers and comes bundled with a virtual firewall to keep the connection secure.

This is a clue into how NFV services have evolved, from the data centre via the core network, and now to the branch.  We are already piloting an app store, where customers can download different NFV components depending on the requirements of each location. These are significant developments in what is the biggest shakeup in network technology for 20 years.

Agility and control

Essentially, NFV is evolving to replace network attached hardware – routers, firewalls and WAN accelerators – with virtualised equivalents. The big benefit of moving from hardware to software is a new-found agility that comes from reducing the dependency on proprietary single-box solutions. It’s faster and more cost-effective to deploy NFV architecture than install a new box, and because it’s run from a platform, it gives network teams more control and visibility over the infrastructure.

NFV is still perceived as an emerging technology, and therefore synonymous with risk and uncertainty that will put many organisations off, but we have customers who have found safe windows of opportunity to introduce and benefit from the first wave of the technology.  

Here are three use cases BT has been supporting:

Refresh cycles – what has traditionally been a time consuming and expensive task becomes much easier in a virtualised network environment. To better align staggered upgrades that can leave hardware misaligned, one of our customers has taken a virtualised approach, making the process much more agile.

End of life – rather than ‘rip and replace’ network hardware, the most cost effective way to capitalise on the benefits of NFV is to introduce it incrementally, swapping out ageing kit with virtualized equivalents that gradually make the environment more flexible, and supportive of SD-WAN deployments.

Performance issues –  we have global customers who have improved the performance of critical applications on key sites by introducing WAN optimisation tools. Because they are virtualised and no hardware is involved, they can easily be removed at a later date. Optimisation becomes a utility service.

Making the case

One reason why NFV adoption at the edge is still relatively low is because it’s complicated to deploy. Over the coming months I’ll be looking at some of the inherent challenges in the technology and the best way to overcome them to realise the benefits. But ignoring NFV is a bigger risk than deploying it.

While analysts are right to categorise it as an emerging technology, BT pilot projects prove that a business case can already be made for carefully managed implementations. More important than the short term outcomes is the opportunity to get up to speed with transformational network technology. In fact, some of you have already been testing the possibilities of edge NFV in your own labs and telling us about performance reality-checks that need to be made.

Over the last decade, businesses have come to understand how new technology enables competitive advantage, that cloud and digital services empower them with greater agility. SD-WAN and now NFV offer more of the same at the network level. The quicker companies can replace legacy technologies with virtualized components, the better placed they will be to thrive and succeed in a fast-changing future.

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Steve Coakley