Last IETF i ran into a couple of hallway discussions where the folks were having a lively debate on whether Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) will eventually sound the death knell for huge clunky hardware vendors like Cisco, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, etc. I was quickly apprised about some Wall Street analyst’s report that projected a significant drop in Cisco’s revenue over the next couple of years as service providers moved to SDN and NFV solutions . I heard claims about how physical routers (that i so lovingly build in AlaLu) will get replaced by virtual routers (vRouters) and other server based software that even small startups could build. The barrier to entry in the service provider markets had suddenly been lowered and the monopoly of the big 3 was being ominously challenged. There was talk about capex spending reduction happening in the service provider networks and how a few operators were holding on to their purchase orders to see how the SDN and NFV story unfurled. There was then a different camp that believed that while SDN and NFV promised several things, it would take time before things got really deployed and started affecting capex spending and OEM’s revenues.
So whats the deal?
Based on my conversation with several folks actively looking into SDN/NFV and a good bit of reading I understand that operators are NOT interested in replacing their edge aggregation and core routers with software driven vRouters. They still want to continue with those huge clunky beasts with full control plane intelligence embedded alongside their packet pushing data plane. These routers are required to respond to network events in real time (remember FRR?) to prevent outages and slowdowns. Despite all performance improvements the general purpose processors can typically process not more than 2-3 Gbps per core (Intel with DPDK module and APIs for Open Virtual Switch promises better throughput) which is embarrassingly slow when compared to the throughput of 400-600 Gbps thats possible with NPUs and ASICs today. Additionally routers using non-ethernet ports (DSL, PON, Coherent Optical, etc) cannot be easily virtualized since the general purpose CPUs cannot perform the network functions along with the DSP components required to support these ports.
So while a mobile gateway that essentially forwards packets can be virtualized, it would only make sense to do this where the amount of traffic its handling is relatively small.
So where can we deploy these NFV controlled server based vRouters?
The Provider Edge (PE) routers does several things today, few of which could be easily moved out to be implemented on standard server hardware. ETSI’s NFV Use cases document (case #2) identifies vPE as a potential NFV use case. The “PE” routers in the MPLS world connects the customer edge (CE) router at the customer premises to the P routers in the provider network. The PE router serves as the service delimiter where it provides L3 VPNs, VPLS, VLL, CDNs and other services to the customers.
The ETSI NFV use-case document (case #2) describes how enterprises are deploying multiple services in branch offices; several of these enterprises use dedicated standalone appliances to provide these services (firewalls, IDS/IPS, WAN optimization, etc), which is “cost prohibitive, inflexible, slow to install and difficult to maintain”.
As a result, many enterprises are looking at outsourcing the virtualization of enterprise CPE (access router) into the operator’s network.
Increased capex and opex pressure is edging enterprises and providers to look at virtualization capabilities made possible by NFV. So, lets look at what all can be virtualized by NFV.
The ETSI NFV use-case document states that “Traditional IP routers based on custom hardware and software are amongst the most capital-intensive portions of service-provider infrastructure. PE routers run out of control plane resources before they run out of data plane resources and virtualization of control plane functions improves scalability.”
It further states that moving some of the control plane to equivalent functionality implemented in standard commercial servers deploying NFV can result in significant savings.
The figure below gives an idea of the components that can be moved out of the PE router and onto an NFV-powered server.
Network functions/services that can be offloaded from the PE router
If we’re able to push out the functions/services shown in the figure above, the PE router effectively gets reduced to a router thats mainly pushing the packets out and vPE, the device for service delivery. NFV appears to be most effective at the edge of the network where customers are served — this also happens to be mostly ethernet, which works in the favor of NFV since other ports cannot be served as effectively.
Operators believe NFV can be used for mobile packet core functions for 3G and EPC. LTE operators believe that while basic packet pushing functions must still reside in the routers, the other ancillary functions that have been added to the routers over the time are good candidates for NFV. We can keep BRAS, firewalls, IDS, WAN optimizers, and other service functions separate and use the physical router for merely transferring the packets.
Clearly, the vPE can handle many network functions that are currently done by the conventional physical routers. While the PE may still handle pushing the packets, the intelligence for many of the services typically handled by the PE can be moved to vPE. This is a paradigm shift from what the PE routers have been doing all this while. The network functions and services that can be moved to vPE are:
- Mobile packet core functions for 3G and LTE EPC
- Firewalls (FW) and IDS/IPS (Intrusion Detection and Intrusion Prevention systems)
- Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)
- CDNs (content delivery networks) and caching
- IP VPNs – control plane to set up the MPLS VPNs
- VLLs and VPLS – control plane to set up the MPLS VPNs
These functions can be virtualized to run either on the servers under NFV or can be SDN controlled. Where these reside in the network will depend upon the QoS and QoE (Quality of Experience) required by the customers. If latency and speed is an issue, the functions should reside in servers close to the customers. But if latency is not an issue the functions could reside deep in the provider network or a remote data center.
Operators will deploy NFV and SDN, which will impact their buying decisions. Its clear that they will not be replacing their core and edge aggregation routers with NFV driven software solutions. Instead, NFV will be used at the edge to offload service functions from the HW PE router onto servers with vPE in the NFV environment to deliver new services agilely to end users and generate higher revenue.
There is thus no need for the Ciscos, Junipers and Alalu’s of the world to worry about falling revenues since the NFV powered solutions are not targeting their highest margain businesses — at least not yet!