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NFV use cases emerge as IoT evolves

NFV use cases in an Internet of Things environment are taking shape, as CSPs turn to virtualization to support the growing number of smart devices.

Network functions virtualization (NFV) can help service providers deliver secure network resources to meet the unique and evolving needs of Internet of Things (IoT) applications, as well as the related challenges of big data. We are now seeing NFV use cases emerge in IoT, as communication service providers (CSPs) use IT technologies -- such as virtualization, standard servers and open software -- to prepare their mobile networks for the era of the smart device.

IoT use cases have tremendous breadth, ranging from municipal traffic networks and electric and gas utilities, to consumer wearables, home networks and medical devices. Some significant IoT applications that are in scope for CSPs:

  • Connected cars
  • Energy management
  • Smart cities
  • Home automation
  • Smart metering
  • Environmental sensors
  • Inventory control

Such IoT applications have very diverse network requirements. For example, connected cars may need to continuously send large amounts of data during operation, while a connected vending machine only needs to send a small amount of data several times a day. Some applications also have critical network security requirements -- witness the recent hacking of connected cars.

One characteristic that all IoT applications have in common: Each collects data and sends it to a control point -- often over Long Term Evolution (LTE), 4G, Wi-Fi or some combination of the above. In general, the smarter the device, the more data it collects and sends. Many applications need constant access to sophisticated traffic monitoring, scalable analytics and business intelligence platforms; not all of this analysis can or should occur in a centralized location. Distributed intelligence throughout the network will ultimately enable the near real-time analytics that IoT demands. NFV can help CSPs build network intelligence to throttle traffic -- eliminate bottlenecks -- secure traffic in transit to the IoT gateway and, as necessary, provide analytics at the network edge to reduce latency.

CSPs experiment with NFV use cases

IoT applications have very different network requirements and characteristics than the smartphones and tablets that currently dominate mobile networks. CSPs have started to use NFV to build IoT-specific sections of their mobile networks with new, virtual Evolved Packet Cores (EPCs). EPCs have many sub-elements that providers will use in different combinations for specific IoT applications. Virtual EPCs give CSPs the ability to cost-effectively customize their networks for individual customers, industries and applications -- critical in the diverse world of IoT.

In addition to the EPC, additional NFV elements that CSPs may use to enable the IoT include routing, security, SDN controllers, monitoring and service assurance

Implementation of sophisticated IoT applications is a significant IT and network challenge that requires standardization, as well as the integration of a range of technologies. Leveraging NFV to implement IoT requires a broad skill set, including: NFV platforms, NFV applications, analytics, security, integration with operational support systems and business support systems, and associated professional and support services. Suppliers with the breadth and scope to implement NFV in the context of IoT include: Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, HP, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Oracle, Dell and Nokia.  As NFV use cases continue to emerge in the IoT, the products and services of a number of smaller, independent software vendors will also prove critical to implementation.

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