Is NFV Just for Service Providers?

A lot of people that I talk to regard NFV as something of interest only to service providers. I think that perception comes in large part from the service provider orientation of some of the high-visibility organizations that have formed to drive the evolution of NFV. This includes an industry specification group (ISG) that the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) established a couple of years ago, as well as the project that the Linux Foundation recently announced. My take is that while I understand the perception that NFV is only of interest to service providers, I definitely don’t agree with it.

wires_abstractSuppose I were to begin this discussion by taking up the position that yes indeed, NFV pertains only to service providers. Part of my argument would be that in November 2012 seven of the world’s leading service providers selected ETSI to be the home of an ISG for NFV. That gave rise to what has become my favorite ten letter acronym: the ETSI NFV ISG.

Over the last two years, the ETSI NFV ISG has made a lot of progress. For example, in October 2013, ETSI published the first five specifications relative to NFV. According to ETSI, “The five published documents include four ETSI Group Specifications (GSs) designed to align understanding about NFV across the industry. They cover NFV use cases, requirements and the architectural framework. The fifth GS defines a framework for coordinating and promoting public demonstrations of Proof of Concept (PoC) platforms illustrating key aspects of NFV.” As of October 2014, ETSI is sponsoring twenty-five POCs, each of which is championed by one or more service providers and is focused on an issue, such as virtualized content delivery networks, which is of interest primarily to a service provider.

In September 2014, the Linux Foundation announced the founding of the Open Platform for NFV Project (OPNFV). As part of their announcement, they stated that “OPNFV will be a carrier-grade, integrated, open source reference platform intended to accelerate the introduction of new products and services.” The founding members are a range of vendors as well as some of the leading service providers including AT&T, China Mobile, Telecom Italia and Vodafone.

Now, before I explain the other side of the argument — why I think it’s wrong to look at NFV as being relevant only to service providers — let me tell you a story. A number of years ago when the industry trade press first started to discuss cloud computing, they were talking about what a handful of players such as or Rackspace were doing. I remember having heated arguments with industry pundits who insisted that the phrase cloud computing only applied to enterprises acquiring applications and services from third parties such as or Rackspace. I strongly disagreed with the pundits, not because of some ideological concern, but because I saw that a number of enterprise IT organizations were beginning to adopt some of the same virtualization and automation techniques that these third parties were using. Were these enterprises doing the exact same things as and Rackspace? No, they weren’t, but both conceptually and from an implementation perspective it had a number of similarities.

I recently fielded two surveys – one on SDN and the other on NFV. When reviewing the responses to those surveys I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of enterprise IT organizations think that NFV is relevant to them. I would be the first to admit that over the next 2 or 3 years few enterprises will implement any of the ETSI-defined NFV use cases. However, I don’t think that the survey respondents were thinking about the ETSI-defined use cases. The survey respondents were acknowledging the fact that they have been deploying virtualized network functions such as WAN Optimization Controllers and Application Delivery Controllers in production networks for the last few years.

So, to answer the main question — is NFV just for service providers? —  I will draw on the lessons learned from cloud computing. What and Rackspace were doing had some similarities and some differences with what enterprises were doing. Today, however, we refer to all of that as cloud computing. The objectives and the challenges that service providers and enterprises face as they deploy virtualized network functions have some similarities and some differences. Over time the differences are likely to become fewer. In the meantime I will paraphrase VMware’s Steve Mullaney and say that what service providers are pursuing is NFV and what enterprises are pursuing is small ‘n’, small ‘f’, small ‘v’.