When i started looking at NFV, i always imagined it being relegated to places in the network that would receive only teeny weeny amount of data traffic since the commodity hardware and software could only handle so much of traffic. I also naively believed that it would be deployed in networks where customers were not uber-sensitive to latency and delay (broadband customers, etc). So if somebody really wanted a loud bang for their buck they had to use specialized hardware to support the network function. You couldnt really use Intel x86-based servers running SW serving customers for whom QoS and QoE were critical and vital. The two examples that leap to my mind are (i) Evolved Packet Core (EPC) functions such as Mobility Management Entity (MME) and BNG environments where the users need to be authorized before they can expect to receive any meaningful services.
While i understood that servers were getting powerful and Intel was doing its bit with its Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) architecture, it didnt occur to me till recently that we would be seeing servers handling traffic at 10G+ line rate. Vyatta, a Brocade company now, uses vRouters to implement real network functions. Vyatta started with its modest 5400 vRouter that could only handle 1G worth of traffic at the line rate. But then last year it announced 5600 vRouter that takes advantage of Intel multi-core and DPDK architecture to achieve 10x+ performance. Essentially how DPDK drastically improves the performance is by directly passing the packets from the line card to the code running in the userspace by completely bypassing the high-latency DRAM processing thus speeding up the packet processing. It also supports amongst other things, lockless FIFO implementation for packet enqueue/dequeue as semaphores and spinlocks are expensive.
The Vyatta 5600 vRouter can be installed on pretty much any x86 based server and can support number of network functions such as dynamic routing, policy-based routing, firewalls, VPN, etc. Vyatta redesigned its software to make use of multiple cores — so while the control plane ran on one core, the data plane was distributed across multiple cores. Using a 4 core processor, they ran control plane on 1 core, and 3 instances of line traffic were handled by the remaining 3 cores. This way Vyatta was able to handle 10G traffic through a single processor.
Now imagine putting 3-4 such x86 based servers in a network. If (and we look at this in some other blog post) you can split the data traffic equitably, you can achieve close to 30-40G throughput.
Wind River a few weeks ago announced its new accelerated virtual switch (vSwitch) that could deliver 12 million packets per second to guest virtual machines (VMs) using only two processor cores on an industry-standard server platform, in a real-world use case involving bidirectional traffic.
Many people believe that NFV is best suited to deployed at the edge of the network — basically close to the customers and isnt yet ready for the core or places where the traffic volumes are high or the latency tolerance is low. I agree to this, and covered this aspect in great details here.
What this shows is that its patently possible for virtual routers to run at speeds comparable to regular hardware based routers and can replace them. This augurs well for NFV since it means that it can be deployed in a lot many places in the carrier network than what most skeptics believed till some time back.