Another New Year’s Resolution for Network Managers: I Will Embrace Virtual Network Functions

In my blog near the beginning of the year, I urged network managers to make a resolution to not stick with the status quo when it comes to evaluating and selecting an SD-WAN solution provider, as it will ultimately prove a bad decision for the company and potentially the engineer’s career.  Another resolution network managers must make in 2017 is to embrace the concept of virtual network functions (VNFs), particularly for branch office and remote locations.

Not Just for Telcos

The terms “network functions virtualization” (NFV) and “virtual network functions” are often used interchangeably, but most enterprises consider NFV to be something for telcos.  This perception is out there because the use of VNFs was legitimized by service providers attempting to speed up the deployment of new services and lower costs.  Fast time-to-market is critical for service providers as they are continually pursuing new sources of revenue and growth from adjacent opportunities beyond core transport services.  One can think of NFV as being the architecture to deploy virtual network services and VNFs being the enabler of that.

For businesses, the use of VNFs is not tied directly to revenue, as most organizations aren’t interested in selling virtual firewalls and other services to their end customers. However, the technology can still be used to stimulate growth.  In the digital era, speed is everything.  If a company wants to open a new branch office, VNFs can be used to enable network services in that location almost instantly as they are deployed as software instead of having to purchase and install physical hardware.  Also, in this era where applications are spun up and spun down quickly, it’s important that the supporting network services can also be spun up and down in alignment with changing requirements.

VNFs are most commonly associated with security devices, and this makes sense given the need to deploy security services everywhere.  However, today almost any kind of network service can be deployed as a virtual service.  This includes routers, firewalls, WAN optimization, and SD-WAN endpoints. Silver Peak offers a range of virtual appliances including SD-WAN, WAN Optimization and even Replication Acceleration, offering terabytes of throughput.

Higher Performance, Lower Cost

Historically one might have shied away from running a service as computationally intensive as WAN Optimization or replication as a virtual function, but the fact is that off-the-shelf commodity processors running on generic servers offer outstanding performance and are ideally suited to support VNFs. In a high-performance data center one might choose to go with dedicated hardware given the demands of that location, but for branch offices and even regional hubs, there’s no question that VNFs can deliver comparable performance with increased agility at a significantly lower cost.

The other important point for IT leaders to consider is that the world is becoming increasingly dynamic and more distributed, and the organization’s technology roadmap needs to align to and support that.  Having to roll out physical appliances and having great lag times in deployment because local resources need to be dispatched is the antithesis of being more dynamic and distributed.

The digital era has brought with it many exciting new technologies, such as containers and cloud computing, but the network has lagged behind.  Network managers need to make a resolution that this will be the year the network catches up and becomes as agile and dynamic as other parts of IT and embracing VNFs is a key to that.