The two elements needed for NFV success

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The ideas around Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV), each in their own right, have been around in the industry for many years and have garnered significant interest in the marketplace as methods to break the vertical market stranglehold that vendors have had on networking hardware and software products and associated technologies. These disruptive influences that SDN and NFV promise still share additional hurdles and shortcomings to overcome, real or perceived, to reach their full potential.

Organisations are on the hunt for infrastructure convergence wherever they can find it, which is why interest in SDN and NFV continue to grow. The NFV market alone is projected to grow at a CAGR of more than 42 per cent between now and 2024. These technologies promise to free organisations from being locked into proprietary hardware and software packages and free up resources for innovation, but there are some kinks still to be worked out.

Those proprietary, customised offerings have traditionally been the foundation for the network infrastructure of data centres, mobile operators and enterprises. Example applications include network gateways, switches, routers, network load balancers, varied mobile applications in the mobile core and radio access network such as vEPC (virtual evolved packet core), vCPE (virtual customer premise equipment), vRAN (virtual Radio Access Network) and security applications like firewalls, NGFW, IDS/IPS, SSL/IPsec offload appliances, DLP and antivirus applications, to name just a few. 

NFV has an exciting value proposition for network operators. Instead of buying and deploying custom networking devices for these varied applications, operators would prefer to support these functions as software applications, called virtualised network functions (VNFs), running on virtual machines or in containers on standard servers rather than buying proprietary appliances to run each networking application. Moving away from discrete, customised architectures to a more consolidated “x86-only architecture” promises to reduce costs, simplify deployment and management of networking infrastructure, widen supplier choice and, ultimately, enable horizontal scale-out in the networking and security market.

Assuming that applications in software on standard platforms are going to be able to meet the throughput and latency demands that applications require without throwing significant CPU resources at the problem has become a pipe dream. Operators are realising that the cost savings that NFV promises are offset by the need to deploy entire racks of compute resources at a problem that a single appliance could previously support. The CPU and server costs, rack space and power required to meet the same performance footprint of a dedicated solution end up being as expensive as or more than custom-designed alternatives. The vision of operational simplicity and dramatically lower total cost of ownership are still a dream on the horizon.

5G’s two-edged sword

According to a report by Global Market Insights, Inc., China’s telecom giants are set to invest more than $180 billion by the year 2023 on 5G infrastructure, which is estimated to augment the growth of the SDN market. 5G networks will only exacerbate the performance and scaling problems that operators face with generic virtualisation infrastructure (NFVi).

The move to 5G brings new requirements to mobile networks, creating its own version of hyperscale networking that is needed to meet the performance goals for the technology, but at the right economy scale. Numerous factors are fundamentally unique to 5G networks when compared to previous 3G/4G instantiations of mobile protocols. The shorter the distance, the higher the frequency – thus, the more bandwidth that can be driven over the wireless network.

5G is a good and necessary upgrade, but it comes with an enormous increase in the number of users/devices (both human and IoT), which fundamentally affects the number of unique flows in the network and necessitates very low latency requirements. 5G also promises lower energy and cost than previous mobile technologies. These 5G goals, when realised, will drive the application of wireless communications to completely new areas never seen before.

Taking a load off

Virtualised networking functions need to scale to meet performance goals. Operators have realised that to doing so requires dataplane acceleration based on FPGA-based SmartNICs. This technique offloads the x86 processors that are hosting the varied VNFs to support the breadth of services promised.

The most secure and best-performing approach to deploying VNFs is SmartNIC acceleration of virtual switching. Virtual machines (VMs) can use accelerated packet I/O and guaranteed traffic isolation via hardware while maintaining vSwitch functionality. FPGA-based SmartNICs specialise in the match/action processing required for vSwitches and can offload critical security processing, freeing up CPU resources for VNF applications.

Functions like virtual switching, flow classification, filtering, intelligent load balancing and encryption/decryption can all be performed in the SmartNIC and offloaded from the x86 processor housing the VNFs while, through technologies like VirtIO, be transparent to the VNF, providing a common management and orchestration layer to the network fabric.

Elements for success

Today’s networking and security solutions have to be flexible, fast, less expensive. The technique to overcome the challenges that are facing NFV deployments requires reconfigurable computing platforms based on standard servers capable of offloading and accelerating compute-intensive workloads, either in an inline or look-aside model to appropriately distribute workloads between x86 general-purpose processors and software-reconfigurable, FPGA-based SmartNICs optimised for virtualised environments.

These SmartNICs are capable of supporting the most demanding requirements. By pairing them with general-purpose COTS server platforms, network applications can operate at hundreds of gigabits of throughput with support for many millions of simultaneous flows. With this unique architecture leveraging the benefits of COTS hardware for networking applications, the vision of NFV is not over the horizon but is clearly attainable.

This unique approach enables the high performance that organisations need and frees up human and financial resources to focus on higher-value tasks. Taking advantage of virtualised acceleration and offloads will help bring the promise of NFV and SDN firmly into the realm of reality.

Daniel Proch, VP of product management, Napatech
Image source: Shutterstock/Toria