Network Function Virtualization

Comcast recently did a trial of DOCSIS 4.0 at a home in Jacksonville, Florida, and was able to combine various new techniques and technologies to achieve a symmetrical 1.25 Gbps connection. Comcast says this was achieved using DOCSIS 4.0 technology coupled with network function virtualization (NFV), and distributed access architecture (DAA). Today I’m going to talk about the NFV concept.

The simplest way to explain network function virtualization is that it brings the lessons learned in creating efficient data centers to the edge of the network. Consider a typical data center application that is to provide computing to a large business customer. Before the conversion to the cloud, the large business network likely contained a host of different devices such as firewalls, routers, load balancers, VPN servers, and WAN accelerators. In a fully realized cloud application, all of these devices would be replaced with software that would mimic the functions of each device, all operated remotely in a data center consisting of banks of super-fast computer chips.

There are big benefits from a conversion to the cloud. Each of the various devices used in the business IT environment  is expensive and proprietary. The host of expensive devices, likely from different vendors are replaced with lower-cost generic servers that run on fast chips. A host of expensive electronics sitting at each large business is replaced by much cheaper servers sitting in a data center in the cloud.

There is also a big efficiency gain from the conversion because inevitably the existing devices in the historic network operated with different software systems that were never 100% compatible. Everything was cobbled together and made to work, but the average IT department at a large corporation never fully understood everything going on inside the network. There were always unexplained glitches when software systems of different devices interacted in the work network.

In this trial, Comcast used this same concept in the cable TV broadband network. Network function virtualization was used to replace the various electronic devices in the Comcast traditional network including the CMTS (cable modem termination system), various network routers, transport electronics for sending a broadband signal to neighborhood nodes, and likely the whole way down to the settop box. All of these electronic components were virtualized and performed in the data center or nearer to the edge in devices using the same generic chips that are used in the data center.

There are some major repercussions for the industry if the future is network function virtualization. First, all of the historic telecom vendors in the industry disappear. Comcast would operate a big data center composed of generic servers, as is done today in other data centers all over the country. Gone would be different brands of servers, transport electronics, and CMTS servers – all replaced by sophisticated software that will mimic the performance of each function performed by the former network gear. The current electronics vendors are replaced by one software vendor and cheap generic servers that can be custom built by Comcast without the need for an external vendor.

This also means a drastically reduced need for electronics technicians at Comcast, replaced by a handful of folks operating the data center. We’ve seen this same transition roll through the IT world as IT staffs have been downsized due to the conversion to the cloud. There is no longer a need for technicians that understand proprietary hardware such as Cisco servers, because those devices no longer exist in the virtualized network.

NFV should mean that a cable company becomes more nimble in that it can introduce a new feature for a settop box or a new efficiency into data traffic routing instantly by upgrading the software system that now operates the cable network.

But there are also two downsides for a cable company. First, conversion to a cloud-based network means an expensive rip and replacement of every electronics component in the network. There is no slow migration into DOCSIS 4.0 if it means a drastic redo of the underlying way the network functions.

There is also the new danger that comes from reliance on one set of software to do everything in the network. Inevitably there are going to be software problems that arise – and a software glitch in an NFV network could mean a crash of the entire Comcast network everywhere. That may sound extreme, and companies operating in the cloud will work hard to minimize such risks – but we’ve already seen a foreshadowing of what this might look like in recent years. The big fiber providers have centralized network functions across their national fiber networks, and we’ve seen network outages in recent years that have knocked out broadband networks in half of the US. When a cloud-based network crashes, it’s likely to crash dramatically.