SDN vs. NFV: Network Virtualization Options Explained

The growing complexity of traditional networking in modern IT services requires businesses to deploy technologies like software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) to provide more flexible network infrastructure management

As networking evolves in today’s IT environment, these technologies enable enterprises to handle large amounts of data on the cloud with higher efficiency and at lower costs. But while both SDN and NFV offer network virtualization capabilities, they do so in different ways.

Below, we’ll compare SDN vs. NFV technologies, exploring their benefits and best use cases.

Understanding SDN (Software-Defined Networking)

Software-driven networking (SDN) involves using application programming interfaces (APIs) to direct network traffic over a company’s hardware infrastructure. As a network management tool, SDN helps administrators remotely manage networks without the burden of doing so physically.

The core components of SDN architecture include:

  • Applications which provide information about the network or help administrators direct specific requests to network locations
  • Controllers which communicate with applications to determine where traffic (as data packets) goes in a network
  • Networking devices which route data based on the instructions they receive from controllers
  • Open-source technologies which are programmable networking protocols that route traffic across the network

Benefits of SDN

The main benefits of using SDN for network management include:

  • Greater network visibility – SDN increases administrators’ visibility into large networks via centralized network management, enabling extensive control of devices connected across entire networks.
  • Improved agility and flexibility – With SDN, companies can control the connections across their entire networks, helping them scale up or down easier, depending on their unique needs.
  • Efficient resource utilization – By implementing network segmentation, organizations can connect virtual networks to physical ones, which helps when customizing network resourcing.

Use Cases of SDN in IT Services

In practice, SDN can help organizations optimize their network management operations to make them more agile and flexible in the short and long term. 

Network management via SDN enables: 

  • Optimization of data center operations to achieve greater control over network resources and allocate them on demand
  • Virtual organization (via cloud networking) of network resources, allowing administrators to make location-independent allocation decisions
  • The design and operation of virtualized network services that can be customized to an organization’s specific needs

Exploring NFV (Network Functions Virtualization)

Unlike SDN, network functions virtualization (NFV) transitions network services from a manual hardware environment into a virtual production one with end-to-end automation. And in comparison to traditional hardware-based network functions, NFV automates the network management lifecycle, simplifying processes like network testing, configuration and troubleshooting.

The key components of NFV architecture include:

  • Virtual network functions (VNF), which act as the network functions that derive their resourcing from the NFVI
  • Network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVI), which acts like traditional hardware and supports functions like computation, storage and networking
  • Management, automation and network orchestration (MANO), which enables administrators to manage entire networks

Benefits of NFV

Using NFV for network management offers several benefits:

  • Cost savings and scalability – End-to-end automation of network service lifecycles translates into lower operational and capital expenses while streamlining the process of scaling network infrastructure up or down depending on network demands vs. existing resourcing.
  • Rapid deployment of network services – Automation of the network management lifecycle means virtual services are much faster to deploy over networks, regardless of size.
  • Simplified network management – Virtualization of networks eliminates the need to manually complete processes like network testing, installation and configuration, simplifying the overall network management lifecycle.

Use Cases of NFV in IT Services

In the IT space, you can use NFV technology for a wide range of applications:

  • When used in virtualized firewalls and security services, NFV technology enables centralized control of vast networked infrastructure.
  • Large organizations with massive physical data centers can transform them into virtual ones managed by virtualized routers and switches.
  • Virtualized WAN optimization enables faster and more efficient data transfer to connect virtual data centers to remote enterprise locations.

Comparing SDN and NFV

In general, SDN functions best as a technology to centralize the management of virtual networks, whereas NFV separates VNF technologies spread across virtual servers. Although SDN is typically used at a much smaller enterprise scale, NFV tends to be more beneficial for service providers, like telecom companies that offer their services to hundreds or thousands of customers.

However, SDN and NFV technologies are complementary, meaning you can use SDN to virtualize your existing networks and then leverage NFV to manage network-based software applications. When used together, SDN and NFV can enhance cloud-based network management, improving scalability while reducing the cost of managing large network infrastructures.

Considerations for Implementation

When comparing NFV vs. SDN to decide which technology to implement, essential considerations include:

  • The size of your network infrastructure
  • Your network’s scalability needs
  • Your desired network service functionality

Implementation of either technology will come down to your organization’s specific needs. If you’re just looking to virtualize network services like firewalls or routers, an NFV might be a better option. It will likely reduce costs and scale up easily as your network demand increases.

However, if you’re more interested in optimizing the performance of your networks and controlling network traffic more easily, SDN will likely be the preferred technology to adopt.

Ideally, a phased approach to adopting SDN and NFV technologies might make sense so you’re not suddenly managing massive network infrastructure. Before deploying any of these technologies at scale, conduct an IT network assessment to fully define the existing gaps in your physical and virtual networks.

Future Trends in the SDN and NFV Space

As the landscape of NFV and SDN technologies evolves, companies must understand how these technologies best apply to their unique business environments. With the increased adoption of network virtualization options, there will likely be greater optimization of these technologies and how they function across different IT environments.

Expanding your network resources also requires an investment in security to ensure it functions optimally 24/7. Partnering with a network management specialist like Helixstorm can help you secure your network infrastructure without incurring exorbitant costs.
Contact us to learn more and get started optimizing your network visualization options.