Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) has long been deployed within enterprise IT data centers to increase scalability and provide simplified monitoring and administration of these systems. Companies like VMWare have enjoyed significant success with enterprise Virtual Machine (VM) software within these enterprise environments.
Over the past decade, NFV has been a hot topic of conversation in the network equipment industry. NFV holds the promise of getting away from fixed function network elements and evolving to a paradigm similar to a web services or enterprise data-center. This involves replacing the networking equipment with general-purpose multicore processor, storage, and network I/O servers with a virtualization layer as the foundation. The functions that used to reside in the physical network element would then be virtualized into a "Virtual Network Function" or VNF. These VNFs contain the protocol and packet processing required for the network, but can be easily upgraded, replaced, and managed without having to replace network equipment. This promises much higher scalability, configurability, and faster roll-out of new services.
The impact of IoT
IoT systems and applications are driving wired and wireless networks to provide higher capacity and more bandwidth so smart devices can relay information back to the cloud for processing and analytics. Unlike traditional telco or internet networks, the architecture of IoT systems tend to be more distributed. Telco reference models are typically divided into two functions – the network infrastructure function and the home user device function. IoT is a more complex system involving the cloud network (i.e. data center analytics, storage, and processing systems), network infrastructure, IoT gateway elements (these elements bridge the gap between the simplified communications of the IoT devices and the “on-ramp” to the internet), and the IoT or “smart” devices.
Open source, NFV, and IoT initiatives
The Openstack Foundation Edge Computing Group recently created a white paper called “Cloud Edge Computing: Beyond the Data Center” which provides more detail on the scalability, simplification, and manageability that NFV can provide as well as calling out how their software environment, Openstack, can bring the same virtualization to the network edge which provides many benefits for IoT applications. The white paper aims to:
- Cultivate a conversation around cloud edge computing, including some basic definitions, stimulating interest and engagement from the open source community,
- Guide both the broader open source and OpenStack communities in developing tools and standards needed for broad adoption, and
- Explore how current tools, standards, and architectures may need to change to accommodate this distributed cloud model.
The last point speaks to the need for the network edge, including IoT gateways, to have the ability to add VNFs at the edge in order to have a more flexible, scalable system.
For example, if all data from IoT devices always flowed from endpoint to cloud through the gateway, as an increasing number of IoT devices are deployed and as each device uses more bandwidth to communication information, the larger the bandwidth demand through the network and within the cloud processing environment. If IoT gateway systems can deploy some amount of intelligence and analytics at the edge, more processing can be accomplished at the edge which can help alleviate bandwidth bottlenecks at the network and processing requirements in the cloud.
These driving forces are causing the OSF Edge Computing Group to explore the requirements from a variety of applications and use cases at the network edge and attempt to identify some consistent operating and functional processing paradigms in order to build a platform for the network edge. The white paper does an excellent job outlining characteristics of edge computing and IoT environments. The paper acknowledges a diverse and distributed infrastructure must be accommodated with the ability to perform in a massively distributed environment (on the order of thousands of global locations). The edge can also be a cost-sensitive environment. Typically the NFV environments shrug off any performance challenge by stating “just add more servers”. This cannot be the case at the edge. The software must be able to perform effectively and efficiently within a cost-constrained environment.
The OSF Edge Computing Group is asking the open sourced community to begin exploring IoT and network edge environments, use cases, and challenges in order to determine the possibilities to address extending the OpenStack NFV environment to the edge. More information can be found at the OpenStack Edge computing web page.
There are also a variety of informational video clips and other resources that can be found on the site as well. Network functions virtualization is transitioning from theory to reality. Organizations like the OpenStack foundation and the open source community are beginning to show tangible advances in these areas to support IoT systems and applications.
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