In network functions virtualization (NFV), networking functionality traditionally handled by hardware is moved into software. Understanding NFVs simple origins can help us get perspective on today's vast networking landscape.

BBS upgrades and the dawn of consumer NFV technology

I remember my first computer network upgrade. It was thrilling. It was about 1984, I was in junior high, and my brother Dan and I ran a BBS out of our parents’ basement. With my own money, I made the biggest purchase of my young life: a Novation Apple-CAT II modem. Up to that time, I had only made a withdrawal from my precious savings account for a subscription to Dragon magazine.

Truth be told, the CAT wasn’t my idea. My brother Dan suggested it. Younger and always much better with computers, Dan insisted that the CAT was the modem to get, even though it was already a few years old, and some newer modems were becoming more popular for Apple users.

“It doesn’t matter that it’s older,” said Dan. “Its strength is in the software.”

I was 13. I had no idea what Dan was talking about. Even though he was 9.

When the CAT arrived, I was surprised to open the box and find only an expansion slot card, attached to some wires and a ribbon.

Skip the receiver

“Where do you put the phone receiver?” I asked.

“You skip the receiver,” said Dan. “You just plug the phone line directly from the wall into the computer.”

“Then how will we dial? What if there’s a busy signal?”

“The software will know. It will recognize the busy signal, and try again.”

“But what about when we transfer files with friends?” I asked, not convinced. “We always start out with a voice phone call, and then we get the computers set up, and agree to begin, and put the phones on the modems.”

“All that will be done through software,” said Dan. “We can even open a chat while the transfer is going on.”

Well! In 1984, this was downright sorcery. But I didn’t learn my lesson.

When a router looks like a switch

Fifteen years later, trying to balance two liberal arts degrees with some practical skills, I was studying for an entry-level networking certification. I contacted Dan, who was already an accomplished network engineer, to brag about how much I was learning.

“I know the difference between a router and a switch!” I said.

“A router and a switch are the same thing,” said Dan.

“But… the introductory book I’m reading makes a huge deal out of how different they are!”

“There are many different types of networking functionality,” said Dan. “But functions aren’t necessarily in separate physical boxes. What matters is the software.”

With NFV, software is where it's at

Indeed. It’s always going to be about the software. And now that the world runs on computer networks, that fact matters more than ever. Datacenters rely on constantly upgrading their networking functionality in order to stay relevant. And that can’t be done by replacing all the NICs every couple of months. It’s not practical. It’s too expensive. And, just like in 1984, having the most advanced networking setup is about more than having the newest hardware.

It’s about having the best software.

The ultimate culmination of this principle is Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). With NFV, all the networking functionality is virtualized. Routers, switches, bridges, hubs, collision domains, and subnets… all these distinctions are absorbed into an infinitely more agile system that would never be possible if it had to function as a series of isolated physical components. Together with a software-defined infrastructure (SDI), NFV can also take advantage of compute and memory that would normally be devoted to other processes, but is currently sitting unused. (In fact, in a system that has fully deployed NFV, there may be no network specific hardware at all running, just other components pretending to be network elements.) And, being software, NFV can be constantly updated at a rate that hardware simply cannot. 

Of course, if you know that you're going to do one particular thing repetitively, it's always going to be faster to build it into your hardware. But  that hardware should be disaggregated and pooled. The nature of networking is that for it to work well, systems of different sorts, and built by different companies, need to be able to play nicely together, and that's best done in software.

The goal of making systems play nicely together is why we have OPNFV, a project that helps organizations collaborate on open standards, so that NFV does what it’s really supposed to do: make networks function more smoothly for everyone.

Twenty years from now, I’ll surely be calling Dan with another networking question. Note to my future self: It’s *still* not about the hardware!


The new Intel® processor represents the biggest platform improvements in a decade, and is part of a modern infrastructure environment for NFV, OSS, BSS and general purpose IT workloads.

Using the new Intel® Xeon® Scalable processor, Ericsson is helping to evolve NFV with the evolved packed gateway (EPG), with which we have acheived a throughput of 40Gbps per processor. Check out our exclusive report.

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Header image by Rex Roof 

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Michael Bennett Cohn
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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn is a digital content expert with a wide range of experience in online publishing and advertising. He was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, and he oversaw the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. His journalism has been published by Newsweek, Mashable, and The Forward. He lives in Brooklyn.