WTF is... NFV: All your basestations are belong to us

Intel and rather a lot of telcos want networks to operate like data centres


Mobile network operators would have had an easier life if it wasn’t for smartphones and the flood of data traffic they initiated. Apps have led to a massive increase in the volume of data moving back and forth over phone networks - not just from users; the ads in free apps helped too - and operators are struggling to cope.

And this before the Internet of Things really takes off as it’s expected to do in the coming years, adding millions more – particularly enthusiastic forecasts put the total at billions – devices to these networks too. Catering for all this data traffic isn’t simply a matter up widening the pipe, it will require a massive expansion of the infrastructure needed to host these networks.

Quite apart from the time it will take to put that infrastructure in place, there’s the cost. Businesses and consumers want more bandwidth for less money, but the money has to come from somewhere.

Enter chip giant Intel, not with its capacious cheque book at the ready but with a notion to commoditise telecommunications network infrastructure by ridding it of expensive, proprietary, function-specific and purpose-built hardware and replacing it with cheap general-purpose kit able to replicate in software the functionality delivered by the old boxes.

Intel’s motivation is not philanthropic, of course. These new, standard devices will, it hopes, be based on its processors.

The 1990s all over again

Today’s networks are based around boxes designed to do very specific jobs. Most of those tasks were defined years ago, and hardware built near enough on a bespoke basis for each operator. That makes them very expensive. It also means they can’t be readily adapted as network demand changes over time. Instead, vendors come up with new kit, timing its availability to tie in with established telco upgrade cycles.

It used to be that way in the server business too, but through the 1990s and early 2000s, x86-based commodity hardware running Linux or Windows proved itself to be much cheaper, more flexible, more scalable and easier to upgrade than older Risc-based machines.

Network Functions Virtualisation

The old way and the new: NFV replaces proprietary, bespoke boxes (left) with as many standard servers as you need

Intel’s logic centres on the notion that of relatively low-cost x86 servers can successfully replace pricier servers running on server makers’ own silicon, so surely they can likewise replace all those pricey proprietary boxes currently attached to base-stations and other parts of the network.

Even the chip giant admits x86 servers aren’t going to push out the established hardware in the near term, and not all of it once. But its scents a shift in the mood of the telcos themselves. This change is one that they want, and rather a lot of them are working together to make it happen.

A process has already been established to define how this shift might be made to take place quickly and to better meet the needs of telcos. The process is called Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV).

Bespoke hardware out, commodity kit in

NFV essentially replaces proprietary boxes with software running on standard servers. Or, better still, one server on which you make use of its processors’ virtualisation capabilities to implement the workloads of multiple boxes and their operating systems on a single unit.

BT is a keen supporter of the scheme. According to Don Clarke, the British telco’s Head of Network Evolution Innovation, the company has been researching NFV for the best part of three years now.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, we started a research programme to build a proof-of-concept platform to test network-type workflows on a standard industry servers,” he says. BT took hardware from HP, loaded it with a Wind River embedded software stack and began seeing what network hardware functionality it could replicate in software.

“We implemented a network function that’s well understood in BT, and tested it at scale and at performance,” says Clarke. “Pretty quickly it became apparent that we could get the same or better performance for a quite complex network function from this hardware as we could from a hardware-optimised device we’d bought in volume from one of our network equipment vendors.”

The next stage was to experiment with multiple functions - firewall, threat monitoring, connection acceleration - in parallel. “We asked, ‘OK if I take an industry standard server, what hardware appliances that currently have to be procured, installed and supported individually can I integrate by loading them as software equivalents on a single box, and have them deliver the same performance as the individual units.’ I can confidently say that, from a technical perspective, we did that. We proved the concept.”

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Intel is running rings around AMD and Arm at the edge
    What will it take to loosen the x86 giant's edge stranglehold?

    Analysis Supermicro launched a wave of edge appliances using Intel's newly refreshed Xeon-D processors last week. The launch itself was nothing to write home about, but a thought occurred: with all the hype surrounding the outer reaches of computing that we call the edge, you'd think there would be more competition from chipmakers in this arena.

    So where are all the AMD and Arm-based edge appliances?

    A glance through the catalogs of the major OEMs – Dell, HPE, Lenovo, Inspur, Supermicro – returned plenty of results for AMD servers, but few, if any, validated for edge deployments. In fact, Supermicro was the only one of the five vendors that even offered an AMD-based edge appliance – which used an ageing Epyc processor. Hardly a great showing from AMD. Meanwhile, just one appliance from Inspur used an Arm-based chip from Nvidia.

    Continue reading
  • TSMC may surpass Intel in quarterly revenue for first time
    Fab frenemies: x86 giant set to give Taiwanese chipmaker more money as it revitalizes foundry business

    In yet another sign of how fortunes have changed in the semiconductor industry, Taiwanese foundry giant TSMC is expected to surpass Intel in quarterly revenue for the first time.

    Wall Street analysts estimate TSMC will grow second-quarter revenue 43 percent quarter-over-quarter to $18.1 billion. Intel, on the other hand, is expected to see sales decline 2 percent sequentially to $17.98 billion in the same period, according to estimates collected by Yahoo Finance.

    The potential for TSMC to surpass Intel in quarterly revenue is indicative of how demand has grown for contract chip manufacturing, fueled by companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, and Apple who design their own chips and outsource manufacturing to foundries like TSMC.

    Continue reading
  • Intel withholds Ohio fab ceremony over US chip subsidies inaction
    $20b factory construction start date unchanged – but the x86 giant is not happy

    Intel has found a new way to voice its displeasure over Congress' inability to pass $52 billion in subsidies to expand US semiconductor manufacturing: withholding a planned groundbreaking ceremony for its $20 billion fab mega-site in Ohio that stands to benefit from the federal funding.

    The Wall Street Journal reported that Intel was tentatively scheduled to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ohio manufacturing site with state and federal bigwigs on July 22. But, in an email seen by the newspaper, the x86 giant told officials Wednesday it was indefinitely delaying the festivities "due in part to uncertainty around" the stalled Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act.

    That proposed law authorizes the aforementioned subsidies for Intel and others, and so its delay is holding back funding for the chipmakers.

    Continue reading
  • Intel ships crypto-mining ASIC at the worst possible time
    Chipmaker finally ahead of schedule only to find it arrived too late

    Comment Intel has begun shipping its cryptocurrency-mining "Blockscale" ASIC slightly ahead of schedule, and the timing could not be more unfortunate as digital currency values continue to plummet.

    Raja Koduri, the head of Intel's Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics group, tweeted Wednesday the company has started initial shipments of the Blockscale ASIC to crypto-mining firms Argo Blockchain, Hive Blockchain and Griid:

    Continue reading
  • Intel demos multi-wavelength laser array integrated on silicon wafer
    Next stop – on-chip optical interconnects?

    Intel is claiming a significant advancement in its photonics research with an eight-wavelength laser array that is integrated on a silicon wafer, marking another step on the road to on-chip optical interconnects.

    This development from Intel Labs will enable the production of an optical source with the required performance for future high-volume applications, the chip giant claimed. These include co-packaged optics, where the optical components are combined in the same chip package as other components such as network switch silicon, and optical interconnects between processors.

    According to Intel Labs, its demonstration laser array was built using the company's "300-millimetre silicon photonics manufacturing process," which is already used to make optical transceivers, paving the way for high-volume manufacturing in future. The eight-wavelength array uses distributed feedback (DFB) laser diodes, which apparently refers to the use of a periodically structured element or diffraction grating inside the laser to generate a single frequency output.

    Continue reading
  • Intel demands $625m in interest from Europe on overturned antitrust fine
    Chip giant still salty

    Having successfully appealed Europe's €1.06bn ($1.2bn) antitrust fine, Intel now wants €593m ($623.5m) in interest charges.

    In January, after years of contesting the fine, the x86 chip giant finally overturned the penalty, and was told it didn't have to pay up after all. The US tech titan isn't stopping there, however, and now says it is effectively seeking damages for being screwed around by Brussels.

    According to official documents [PDF] published on Monday, Intel has gone to the EU General Court for “payment of compensation and consequential interest for the damage sustained because of the European Commissions refusal to pay Intel default interest."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022