From The Expert Feature Article
August 21, 2017

What is a Network Functions Platform?

By Special Guest
Paul Andersen, Sr. Director of Marketing, Array Networks

While Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is starting to show traction in enterprises and for MSPs, there is still a lot of guesswork involved to be a viable solution. Enter a new class of products categorized as “Network Functions Platforms,” which hints at something to do with Network Functions Virtualization. A deeper dive in this article will certainly help clarify this new solution category and its intended use cases and benefits.

First, it is important to understand the current NFV landscape, particularly as it relates to enterprise NFV adoption.

  • Consensus among recent market surveys and analyst reports indicates that although only a handful of enterprises have implemented NFV in their production networks, greater than half of all businesses are currently analyzing NFV strategies and vendors.
  • The key driving factors for consideration of NFV are 1) a desire to accelerate the provisioning of services and 2) to gain greater agility and efficiency in leveraging IT infrastructure. Additional business drivers include anticipated reductions in CAPEX and OPEX (News - Alert) over time.
  • Standing in the way of quicker, more widespread adoption of NFV are concerns around 1) organizational disruption among server, virtualization, networking and security teams, 2) skills deficits with respect to new technology, 3) the maturity of current NFV solutions, 4) ability to clearly define ROI, and 5) ensuring enterprise-class performance and security.

The takeaway is that there is a clear interest in NFV on the part of enterprises, driven by the need to become more ‘cloudy’ and software-centric in their approach to supporting internal IT requirements. For vendors that can provide solutions that mitigate inhibitors, there is a tremendous opportunity to help customers make NFV adoption a reality.

Enter the Network Functions Platform, a virtualized hardware appliance, purpose-built to run networking and security virtual appliances (VAs) and virtual network functions (VNFs), while addressing the most pressing challenges to enterprise NFV adoption.

Think of the Network Functions Platform as a virtualized server on steroids. Because networking and security workloads are compute-intensive, compared to application workloads, the Network Functions Platform is engineered from both a hardware and software perspective to deliver scalable and guaranteed performance.

Importantly, the Network Functions Platform is also designed to mitigate organizational disruption and skill deficit concerns by abstracting and automating tasks that otherwise would entail complicated server, virtualization and network configuration. Let’s look at three critical NFV inhibitors and how they are resolved by Network Functions Platforms.

  1. Organizational Disruption – The concern is that networking teams understand networking and often operate in a silo; this is most often also true of security and server/virtualization teams. NFV spans all three areas of operation and, as a result, runs the risk of devolving into organizational gridlock.

    The Network Functions Platform is an appliance that may be purchased and deployed by either a networking or security team, without the need to involve server and virtualization teams. Because the platform is already purpose-built for NFV and because complex virtualization configuration is automated, there is no need for skills beyond those already possessed by the networking and security teams.
  1. Skills Deficits – As mentioned, NFV requires new skill sets, knowledge beyond the domain of network and security teams and, perhaps even beyond that, which is possessed by the server and virtualization teams. This includes everything from selecting the appropriate server configuration, to resource allocation, to service chaining. Without the requisite knowledge, NFV initiatives will ultimately fail.

    Server specifications, hypervisor management, CPU pinning, NUMA boundary settings, SR-IOV, drivers, physical and virtual port mapping and many other factors are fully automated and abstracted by the Network Functions Platform; all that is left for the network or security team to do is select a desired function and an appropriately sized instance.

    In addition, the intuitive WebUI management system provided by the Network Functions Platform allows for simplified creation of service flows between VAs and VNFs – again eliminating the need for specialized skills or involving server and virtualization teams. The Network Functions Platforms allow networking and security teams, and the business, to become more software-centric in the near term with minimum operational or organizational disruption.
  2. Performance and SLAs – Many enterprise applications are business-critical, and feature high-volume traffic, complex configurations and/or strict requirements for the end-user experience. Anticipated NFV benefits, such as reducing the time needed to deploy services or becoming more agile and efficient in the use of IT infrastructure, do not outweigh the cost to the business should applications go offline or underperform.

    Commodity virtualized servers were designed for application workloads, not networking and security workloads. General-purpose hardware, hypervisor overhead, VM contention and virtual switches can all conspire to rob enterprise applications of the performance needed to meet and maintain necessary SLAs.

    In contrast, the Network Functions Platform provides performance for VAs and VNFs that is on par with hardware-based networking appliances, and is also capable of providing guaranteed performance for each VA/VNF deployed on the platform.

    In addition to boasting a system architecture that is purpose-built for networking and security, the Network Functions Platform also partitions off resources required for hypervisor management. Each VA and VNF is assigned dedicated resources (such as CPU cores, hardware-accelerated SSL, memory, virtual ports and physical interfaces) that are unavailable to other hosted VAs and NFVs. The result is a solution that combines the agility of cloud and virtualization with the performance of dedicated hardware appliances.

Another key concern regarding NFV is the need to establish demonstrable ROI. Perhaps the best way to build a business case for NFV adoption is to look at two common use cases where NFV can be deployed to good and measurable effect. In the first example, we’ll look at using a Network Functions Platform as an alternative to traditional load balancing/ADC in a typical enterprise deployment. In the second example, we’ll look at using Network Functions Platforms at an MSP/CSP (News - Alert) for the purpose of offering managed or cloud infrastructure services.

Network Functions Platform for App Delivery

Envision a situation in which 16 load balancers are deployed in support of eight enterprise applications. Costs include expensive hardware as well as 16 rack units of space and the power and cooling required to keep the hardware operational. In contrast, by using two 1RU Network Functions Platforms, the same number of virtual load balancers can be deployed at the same level of performance. Cost-effective virtual load balancing is purchased in place of expensive iron, and rack space, power and cooling costs are also significantly reduced. Moreover, the enterprise can now provision load balancing services on-demand – scaling up and scaling out instances as needed to meet evolving load balancing and app delivery requirements.

Network Functions Platform for MSP and CSPs

Networking and security cloud infrastructure services based on general-purpose virtualized servers may meet the needs of SMB and mid-market customers; however, this deployment model may not hold up as MSPs and CSPs target larger enterprise customers. In this case, the MSP or CSP would likely need to deploy traditional big iron appliances to meet customer demands for performance SLAs. Serving enterprise customers using this approach requires significant upfront investment and often provides little margin for profit. In contrast, the Network Functions Platform allows MSPs and CSPs to continue running VAs and VNFs by hosting them on a purpose-built platform that delivers hardware-like guaranteed performance. In addition, MSPs and CSPs benefit from on-demand provisioning and the ability to seamlessly introduce new services, scale-up and scale-out as needed, and purchase and deploy VAs and VNFs in direct proportion to customer demand.

In summary, the Network Functions Platform is designed to provide enterprises, as well as MSPs and CSPs, with a seamless migration path towards NFV. By solving the pressing concerns inhibiting NFV adoption, and by providing immediate use cases that generate rapid ROI, this new category of product is poised to play an important role in transitioning those who are currently analyzing NFV strategies and vendors into businesses that have deployed NFV in their production networks.

Paul Andersen (News - Alert) is the Senior Director of Marketing at Array Networks. He has over 17 years’ experience in networking, and has served in various marketing capacities for Cisco Systems, Tasman Networks and Sun Microsystems. Learn more about Array’s AVX (News - Alert) Series Network Functions Platform here.

Edited by Erik Linask

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