What Is NFV and How Does It Enable 5G?


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I’m sure you’ve come across terms such as Cloud, NFV, NFVi, OSS, or BSS, before but not everybody knows what it all entails, and that’s okay. Throughout my professional career, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time managing all sorts of enterprise IT projects small and large. To some, it might not be news, but in many industries, projects consume much time. Especially if the companies and vendors you are working with are not up to date on leveraged technology and operational models. This might not even be their fault to begin with. Sometimes you just get stuck in a sort of brownfield and can’t get out of it easily.

When I think back on how much time I spent merely to coordinate the deployment and the decommissioning of hardware in data centers, I really think that it’s mind-boggling how such relatively simple tasks can in some rare cases can even take up to a year. Try to explain all that to the person requesting the decommissioning of a service. Because I know the extremes in risk and cost, I have grown an interest in virtualized… well, everything. Today I want to share some of my thoughts around NFVi with you.

Indeed, you can read networks and technology papers or browse many articles on the Internet, but to be honest, I haven’t found one even myself, which was very good at explaining it all. With this post today, I hope that I can find better words to describe a complex concept and that you close this tab with the feeling that you learned something new and feel more confident about the subject.

What is NFV?

Before delving right into NFVi, we should first spend a moment to explain NFV. The acronym stands for Network Function Virtualization, which represents a framework for a modern network architecture in which high-performance and high-capacity hardware is virtualized and allows for multiple virtual instances (VMs, virtual machines) to share a pool of resources within the virtualization layer. Beyond the mere sharing of component resources, they are also part of the same network and may connect to each other, which can be very handy in some sorts of solution deployment that rely on low-latency coordination of data.

NFV Architecture Framework ETSI Ericsson SDN NFVI Overview Infrastructure Technical Drawing

What is NFVi?

NFVi is a particular variant of NFV, and the “I” itself stands for infrastructure. The point here is focused on providing operator and ISP level organizations an NFV environment (distributed NFV), which enables faster processing of requests. This does not only support the overall speed of project delivery but can also significantly reduce risk and complexity for all parties involved. Cost-savings might not be the initial motivation behind NFVi solutions, but they are certainly a welcome side effect in most cases.

What’s included?

Now, what are the actual parts that are required as hardware? After all, virtualization never happens without any hardware involved. It is more about leveraging hardware with specifications that are higher than commonly needed for non-NFV deployments in data centers or on-premises.

For NFV you’ll require strong computing power delivered through high-end CPUs with a stack of cores, as well as an ample storage for files which could be for instance a hard disk RAID, and a hardware network component which allows for the NFV instances and VMs to connect to other networks or any destination on the Internet.


The concept of NFV is not that old. In 2012, an international group of ETSI experts from various companies sat together and drafted a whitepaper to define NFV at the “SDN and OpenFlow World Congress” in Darmstadt, Germany, not far from me right now, as I write this just a couple of years later. On only 16 pages, including formal information, they managed to define the framework that enabled NFV solution providers to disrupt the market and pave the way to a future-ready infrastructure setup to incorporate and multiply the value of novel technology such as 5G and edge computing.

Ericsson NFVI Article Network Operations Engineer Working On Server Infrastructure

Value of NFVi

Next to the no-brainers like cost-saving aspects, there are naturally other benefits of considering NFVi that often make building a business case a child’s play. Okay, maybe not a child’s play, but I’m confident it will not be the hardest case you ever had to explain to your boss.

By making use of NFVi, you can finally embrace all the aspects everybody loves about startups, even when you’re an enterprise. You’ll be able to increase your flexibility and agility to enable scaling of services with ease. Instead of moving services to more substantial hardware every now and then, you just re-balance your VMs on the fly. Large IT projects? More like clicking a button. In some cases, you don’t even need to restart the instance for the change to become active.

Have you ever been in a network operations center? Not many people have. Network and application engineers are the ninjas of business software. Most don’t even see them, but they keep it all together. Their kind of work makes your services run. They spend their days trying to prevent outages, and if shit hits the fan, they and their peers work hard to recover the service or restore resilience to the service. NFVi helps them to increase the resilience of services and availability. It is also instrumental when considering transformative projects or even when you’re not upscaling but downscaling something. Infrastructure complexity and unpredictability risks are reduced, and the openness of the solution helps interoperability. What’s not to love?

Open Innovation Network Function Virtualization Software Defined Networks Relationship

How does NFV, SDN, and 5G relate to each other?

By now, I hope I was able to explain this abstract concept a bit to you, and you understand more about what is currently emerging in the ICT and carrier industry. But how does this stack up with SDN, 5G, and other hot topics now? Let’s see if we can decrypt this relationship.

To enable highly dynamic communication technology stacks that are required to deliver proper 5G speed and reliability, it is important that you leverage equally cutting-edge infrastructure and orchestration systems. Luis Jorge Romero, Director General at ETSI, says that “… the imminent arrival of 5G mobile is often described as a ‘radio revolution.’ Equally fundamental to its market success, however, is the increasing virtualization and automation of core network functions to streamline efficient operation and enable new service possibilities.”

MWC Ericsson Automated 5G Core And Network Slicing Demo Booth
Snapshot from the Ericsson MWC 2019 booth and their 5G network slicing dashboard

So, NFVi is not only there to save costs in the data center of an organization, but a key requirement to allow for highly dynamic orchestration and management. There are few alternatives to drive this sort of innovation while always being able to scale it.

Mats Johansson, Senior marketing manager, NFV solutions from Ericsson, explained to me that; “A working NFVI with orchestration is fundamental for an efficient automated network for 5G services. Therefore, operators need to transform from today’s physical network or virtualized silos to an open multi-vendor telco cloud. This also requires new ways and skills in the operations.”

In my research on the subject, I frequently stumbled across fantastic material to learn from, which was published by Ericsson and their partners. Next to the marketing and the frequent news about them enabling yet another country with 5G, their websites, documentation, and video material was not only advertising but most importantly, it was educational and factual, in my opinion. When I spot them hosting a webinar on the subject, I usually try my very best to attend, because, no matter what your seniority in the field is, I found that there are always one or two new things to learn that I have not come across before.

If you’re interested in learning more, I strongly suggest you attend the upcoming SDN NFV World Congress 2019, in The Hague, organized by Layer123 and recognized by ETSI, between 14 – 17 October 2019. To find out more about the companies presenting their solutions and an up-to-date agenda, visit the event homepage here. If you’re not able to make it, you can also follow the conversation on social media by checking into the hashtag #SDN19 and by following @EricssonDigital for the most relevant updates throughout the event. A good opportunity to learn more from the industry pioneers!

Photo credit: The feature image “radio tower” has been done by Jack Sloop. The NFV/SDN relationship Venn diagram was inspired by the NFV introductory white paper from ETSI. The drawing of the NFV architecture framework is owned by ETSI. The photos in the body of the article are provided by and owned by Ericsson.
Source: Network functions virtualization introductory white paper (ETSI) / Ericsson product information collateral
Editorial notice: This article has been sponsored by Ericsson and was prepared in collaboration with partners.

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Christopher Isak
Christopher Isakhttps://techacute.com
Hi there and thanks for reading my article! I'm Chris the founder of TechAcute. I write about technology news and share experiences from my life in the enterprise world. Drop by on Twitter and say 'hi' sometime. ;)
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