Cloud-Native NFV: Where Art Thou?

Cloud-native is the future of application development. It’s the latest trend in the technology industry, moving application developers towards a future where applications are developed natively using modern methodlogies and technologies. From a methodology perspective, this includes utilizing agile development, which shifts the cultural aspects of an engineering organization. From a technology perspective, this means using public and private clouds, as well as being API-driven in your development. Pivotal describes cloud-native as the following:

Cloud-native is an approach to building and running applications that exploits the advantages of the cloud computing model.

In another corner of the technology world exists something called Network Function Virtualization, or as it’s typically known, NFV. NFV is built around the idea that service providers in the communications space can take advantage of virtualization technologies. Instead of having to deploy physical appliances for network services, they can instead deploy virtual machine images of these appliances on commodity hardware. It’s a huge shift for the service provider industry.

As the world has moved forward with cloud-native development, NFV has just caught up with the world of virtualization. All of those advantages of cloud-native look pretty appealing to the NFV industry. It’s inevitable that the NFV and service provider industry would want to take advantage of what cloud-native can provide, and in fact this is exactly what is beginning to happen.

As these worlds collide, there is a disconnect around how the cloud-native world has been building technology and what the service provider’s interested in extending NFV want to do. From a networking perspective, cloud-native has been focused up the stack. In a typical OSI model, this has meant focusing on Layer 4 (Transport layer) and Layer 7 (Application layer). Service providers looking to take advantage of NFV are focused more on Layer 2 (Data link layer) and Layer 3 (Network layer).

This discrepancy has resulted in some difficult discussions between the two camps. Kubernetes, the leader in container orchestration, and thus the leader in cloud-native orchestration, has been loathe to integrate support for L2 and L3 networking. And rightfully so. Base Kubernetes was not designed for this. Further, the concepts of NFV are not cloud-native by default, and come from the virtualization view of the world. Objects like “ports”, “subnets”, and “networks” have no place in a cloud-native world. Something has to give, as the systems are not compatible.

But what if there was a way to build a trully cloud-native NFV platform, something which could support cloud-native functions (CNFs) natively? Given how extensible Kubernetes is with custom resource definitions, this is not only possible, it’s being developed and worked on today. This project is called Network Service Mesh. This project is an attempt to reimagine NFV in a cloud-native way.

The image below shows the core concepts in Network Service Mesh. Note that the idea here is to abstract this into higher-level concepts which help to move NFV into it’s inevitable cloud-native future.

In future posts, I will go into some detail on Network Service Mesh. It’s very early in it’s development lifecycle, but it’s been exciting to see the interest in this from both the Kubernetes community as well as the service provider NFV community.

Note: Pictures borrowed from the great presentation given to the Kubernetes Network SIG by Ed Warnicke found here.