The Evolution of Network Functions from VNF to CNF

An illuminating TelecomTV expert panel that explores the critical dynamics of the Cloud Native Telco industry evolution.

The headline journey for the Cloud Native Telco is the evolution from VNF (Virtual Network Function) to CNF (Cloud Native Network Function).

In a TelecomTV interview a panel of industry experts explore the challenges and progress of this journey:

  • Neil McRae, Managing Director Architecture and Technology Strategy and Chief Architect, BT.
  • Miguel Carames, Executive Director Cloud and Technology Planning, Verizon Wireless.
  • Ahmed Zaidi, Telco Cloud, NFV 5G Core Architect, Orange.
  • Heather Kirksey, VP Ecosystem and Community, LF Networking.
  • Ildikó Váncsa, Senior Manager, Community and Ecosystem, Open Infrastructure Foundation.

Are VNFs Still Needed?

The host Guy Daniels begins the session by asking if VM-based network services are still needed.

Ildikó answers highlighting that not only is there a scenario of co-existence but there are actually technology innovations that fuse the two, such as the Kata containers project that puts a container into a lightweight VM, with the goal of leveraging the key strengths of VMs such as the isolation that containers don’t really provide, while still operating/performing as a container app, especially important to key Telco use cases like edge computing.

At 5m:00s Neil McRae is more ruthless, saying that he believes that while the VM-based approach has started them on the virtualization journey ultimately he doesn’t believe they will survive, as they are simply to expensive to operate and thus will be culled by the Telco need for automation and efficiency.

Cloud Ready Solutions?

From 7m:00s Guy follows on from this to ask about vendors offering ‘Cloud Ready’ solutions, the bundling of various pre-integrated network functions.

Miguel answers by saying their preference is for common services that are deployable to their Telco cloud, rather than vertically integrated vendor solutions. He does see that some bundling will continue for certain scenarios such as 5G where there is similar functionality.

Neil believes there is value in the approach as it helps speed the adoption and uptake of certain configurations for service providers, and because no one vendor offers all the components needed it’s likely vendor partner bundling is inevitable.

What are CNFs?

At 12m:55s Guy takes a step back to clarify what exactly are CNFs, as the terms Cloud Native Functions, Cloud Network Functions and Containerized Network Functions are often used.

Heather explains by highlighting containers are a specific technology, Cloud Native is an architecture and practice approach, where it would be possible to have a Cloud Native function deployed within a VM not a container.

Ildikó concurs, saying that containers do play a key role in implementing a Cloud Native architecture but simply dropping in a legacy app without modifying its design for Cloud Native principles will not realize the benefits of this approach.

Miguel feels that this validates their approach, as they set Cloud Native principles to be key to the success of their 5G platform build that they began in 2018, and they directed vendors to work to these principles, with migration plans for applications to be CNF-based.


Guy then asks at 19m:35s what is the current state of the market, given these principles and goals.

Highlighting the point above Neil believes we’re still at the early stages of this evolution, with vendors trying to port their applications into a Cloud Native environment, with varying degrees of compliance with the core Cloud Native principles.

He describes how smaller vendors are more advanced as they have started from scratch, such as Anuta who they work with and who he believes to be truly Cloud Native, versus some of the traditional vendors who have ‘hacked’ their products to try and position them as such. He provides examples of non-compliance being that they carry loads of state or that they are not quite as observable or manageable as they should be in a Cloud Native environment, or that they have specific hardware requirements.

However overall he is positive because all the vendors are unified in their understanding this is the direction the industry is headed and their products will eventually work as required, indeed even going further to run as serverless apps.

Cloud Native for Smaller CSPs?

At 25m:20s Guy moves on to the last question, asking if Cloud Native is a viable approach for smaller, tier two and three service providers.

Neil believes it is essential for their survival, and may prompt interesting industry partnership scenarios, such as partnering with the hyper-scalers like AWS or Google. He emphasizes the ‘Network as a Service’ dimension where connectivity on demand via APIs will be the minimum product offering to stay part of the Telco ecosystem.

Interestingly he also describes the unique opportunity for Telcos, where he believes Telcos are the best at availability and this can feed into the Cloud Native industry evolution. Similarly their security capabilities provided to governments and healthcare also has lots to offer.

Ildikó believes that they widespread industry knowledge being developed about Cloud Native means smaller providers can also access and benefit from this capability. Heather adds that indeed Cloud Native is even more important to smaller providers, as they can more easily access the solutions required to achieve highly scalable, resilient services.

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