F5 takes aim at simplifying NFV for service providers with new VNFs

F5 Networks has crafted a means to simplify NFV for mobile operators and service providers with its new VNF Manager and preconfigured VNFs.

F5's VNF Manager is the coordinating element of the company's new prepackaged, preconfigured virtual network function (VNF) solution that was announced Wednesday at its Agility conference in Boston.

Network functions virtualization (NFV) is a necessity for the evolution of service providers' network architectures, but it can also add levels of complexity. With NFV, service providers are designing services by chaining various VNFs, such as virtual firewalls or virtual routers, together that can then run across x86 servers or virtual routers. The VNF problem for service providers is that they have to configure and onboard each vendor's VNF to use them in their software-defined networks.

"There are two things that are really new," said F5 Networks' Damir Vrankic, senior director of product management, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "One thing is I don't believe that anybody else in the market is actually offering anything similar to this. There are no prepackaged VNF functions that you can actually buy and then 'press the button' and have it unpack and configure itself.

"So this is fully packaged and fully configured in an economical way. You can go back and do some reconfiguration and adjustments that are necessary for everybody and their specific networks. But essentially this is a fully packaged and configured solution that we're offering."

F5 Networks' VNF Manager controls the life cycle of the VNFs by spinning them up or spinning them down as needed, or moving them to different locations. Vrankic said the VNFs could be fully automated from deployment to operations.

On the northbound part of a network, the VNF Manager works with an "orchestrator of orchestrators," which is a multitiered system focused on provisioning and assuring each of the VNF or NFV functions. Vrankic declined to say which orchestrator system VNF Manager would work with—ETSI's Open Source MANO and ONAP are two examples—but "all the major ones would be covered" due to F5 Networks' use of TOSCA as the underlying structure.

Vrankic said the second new item from Wednesday's announcement was "the pay as you grow" model that includes subscription and perpetual licensing options.

"What we really mean with the 'pay as you grow' model is you don't need to make predictions on what is going to happen five years from now and then make sure that you appropriate enough budget for those predictions," Vrankic said. "This new business or purchase model allows them to use what they need now and upgrade with pay as you grow."

While the VNF Manager and VNFs were designed for service providers, Vrankic said enterprises with software-defined networks could use them down the road.

F5 Networks' VNF Manager will be available over the coming months. The first VNFs that F5 Networks is looking at deploying with the manager are virtual firewall and LAN traffic management. Since they are part of a package, those VNFs will become available at the same time as the VNF Manager.

A step in the right direction

By making the VNFs available in a preconfigured fashion with the VNF Manager, F5 Networks is taking some of the pain out of onboarding and deploying VNFs, but for now the VNF Manager only works with F5's VNFs.

It's notable that James Feger, vice president and general manager of F5's service provider business, was quoted in F5's press release. Feger recently led CenturyLink's virtualization efforts before joining F5. Although the VNF Manager and VNFs have been in the works for the past eight or nine months, there's no doubt that Feger is keenly aware of the issues around standardizing VNFs.

Vrankic said that F5 has worked with ONAP on another project, and that his company keeps track of what's going on in ONAP and OSM even though it's not a member of either. ONAP's third software release, which is called Casablanca, will include VNF certification by using the OPNFV Verified Program.

RELATED: AT&T adds more VNFs for businesses with Cisco's ENCS

On the vendor front, Amdocs has been active in working with both ONAP and ETSI on creating a standard VNF packaging format that will enable and speed up the automation of VNF onboarding and acceptance testing.

"All to all, there's no one model on the market yet that would be capable of supporting everything," Vrankic said. "I'm definitely thinking it's going to go in that direction, but I think we need to take a couple steps before we get there."