Industry consensus is that Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) has fallen out of favor, stuck in a kind of technology limbo. Earlier this year, I went to the NFV World Conference in San Jose to see whether that attitude was changing, and whether the industry had found a place in its heart for this technology again.
The short answer is: maybe. Many in the industry still see multiple challenges, though some movement has occurred. The question remaining is whether we have turned a corner and these challenges can be met and overcome, or if these challenges are fundamental and could still prove to be the death-knell of NFV.
I still see reason to hope. It has been obvious from the outset that achieving NFV’s original promise would require implementing a Management and Orchestration (MANO) framework that would enable service agility and continuous optimization. It would also require a common approach from one carrier to another to allow interoperability.
MANO, then, is the make-or-break element. NFV cannot move forward unless its inherent challenges are resolved. It is no wonder that this is the case, as it is a totally new paradigm for how carriers operate and get jobs done. It is more than just technology; it is at the very heart of the transformation that carriers need to make. It is about culture and organizational change.
The cause for my hope is another point of industry consensus – experts are starting to agree about how MANO frameworks should look and the kind of interfaces that are needed. The MEF Lifecycle Service Orchestration initiative is delivering on this need with wide backing. Open Network Automation Platforms (ONAP) and OpenMANO are providing open implementation alternatives. So, the pieces are coming together to make MANO possible.
MANO’s Main Problem
Significant challenges remain, though. The non-technical cultural and organizational challenges of implementing MANO, and NFV in general, are now the main stumbling blocks. Formal presentations and statements by carriers at the show highlighted this point, while conversations with vendors to those carriers confirmed that these are real issues.
Will these issues destroy NFV’s future? It’s unlikely. Many of those same presentations highlighted the progress that was being made as well as the target use cases being implemented. Carriers showed a distinct determination to move forward and a willingness to find a way, no matter what. This includes embracing open-source, even to the extent of making open-source the first choice, in order to maintain control and flexibility as well as to accelerate development cycles by avoiding internal procurement and approval processes. This is a good example of carriers getting out of their own way to make NFV a success. Conversations with vendors also revealed that real deployments are starting to happen and that they are seeing the first real orders.
So, while significant challenges remain, I feel confident that important progress has been made and that we are seeing the first winds fill the sails of NFV that will propel us out of the doldrums.
A Place for SmartNICs
As MANO makes advances, proponents of NFV are beginning to consider the next challenge on the horizon. As I stated above, the motivation for MANO is to enable service agility and continuous optimization. However, this is hard to achieve without an NFV infrastructure that can support automation and provide insight.
The NFV World Congress did not shy away from the issue. There was a greater focus on performance and fault management, security, and the need for data on how the network is performing so MANO can proactively take action. There is also a growing awareness that a rethink of NFV infrastructure is required in order to provide the insight into what is happening in the network.
As a result, experts are turning attention to SmartNICs as a possible solution. The term “SmartNIC” encompasses many different types of solutions based on a variety of technologies. This is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that there is a recognition that alternative approaches to solving the NFV infrastructure performance and efficiency issues are valuable. It is bad in the sense that some of these approaches, which could lead to greater overall cost and inefficiencies, could end up with all SmartNIC approaches being painted with the same broad brush.
As an example, one person who attended the show said that the carrier he works for was no longer interested in assessing SmartNICs because their experiences so far had shown that while the SmartNICs they assessed provided better performance, they did so in a way that led to more operational complexity. The performance gains and associated cost improvements they generated were simply dwarfed by the costs of operating these solutions.
This is an unfortunate “all or nothing” approach that robs the carrier of an opportunity for greater performance. It is not willing to consider alternative SmartNIC implementations because of a bad experience with one of these approaches.
Opportunities on the Horizon
This is a pivotal point: SmartNICs are not all the same. There can be significant differences in how solutions are implemented and in their impact on operations. Each SmartNIC should be evaluated on its own terms. At the same time, SmartNIC vendors need to ensure that they are addressing challenges in a way that does not undermine the overall NFV solution and business case.
Once discounted in terms of NFV, SmartNICs are enjoying renewed interest. As the industry tries to work out how to make NFV viable, it is seriously considering how SmartNICs may help solve NFV infrastructure problems. With advances in MANO and SmartNICs, NFV may be down right now, but it’s certainly not down for the count.
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Daniel Joseph Barry is VP of Positioning and Chief Evangelist at Napatech