There are a couple of terms that are floating around in the IT and Communications space and I want to give some background around them and then talk about how they might impact consumers and businesses. These terms are Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networks (SDN).
I will start off by talking about NFV. In a lot of ways, this is the way many things work today including many websites. The notion is that computing is so fast now that you can run products on all of or part of a standard x86 based server. The IT world has been doing this for some time and not only can you find all kinds of software products that work that way but many things that used to be called “appliances”. The term appliance in this case means a box dedicated to a specific function like a Firewall or a Load Balancer. If you go back 10 years, you would find IT departments loaded with toms of single function boxes that did dedicated jobs of one sort or another. But if you opened up many of these boxes, you would have found that they were actually just running on a computer. So two things happened. Customers and vendors worked at separating the hardware and software so that the customer could operate the software on any appropriate hardware. Thus, if the customer had spare computers they could just put them back into service to do something new. On top of that, there was the development of a middle layer of software to put between the hardware and software. This middle layer allows the computer hardware to be shared between multiple programs. This turned out to be so useful people use this middle software to allow applications to be “moved around” or “turned up” on all kinds of different computers. It gave IT teams all kinds of flexibility in performance, location and quantity of functions. So, communications companies want that same capability for various network functions (Thus it is called NFV). It is not greatly different than what the IT companies have been doing and continue to do. Separate the hardware and software. Allow the creation of new network functions by software on an as needed basis.
SDN is a little less complex but more confounding. The Internet today is primarily a distributed control system. Each system makes its own decisions. There are boundaries to this and not every router in the Internet can make every decision. But recall that the entire reason that the Internet exists was to replace the central control of the telephone network. DARPA was worried that a central control could be nuked (literally) and they hoped that the Internet would continue to work even after an nuclear exchange. Well, having a distributed control system makes some kinds of services much more complicated. So SDN is a way of at least organizing a more centralized control scheme and be able to adapt to network conditions – like network functions appearing and disappearing (see NFV). The reason that it is confounding is it will be interesting to see how much of this is opened to businesses to use versus will remain inside the ISP. There are large security issues in opening up things. Hackers could disrupt all kinds of other customers if things are not done extremely well.
So not much of this is going to be directly visible to consumers. What is likely to happen is that some businesses will be able to build their services out more efficiently with this new technology. That should keep prices down and may allow for some new innovations. But it is possible that this is another set of buzzwords in the hypecycle.
Have a great weekend!
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