2015 was a big year for network functions virtualization (NFV). In recent months, the technology has made a lot of progress in its journey from the blackboard to real world implementation. We've seen NFV move from theoretical discussion to lab testing and public demonstrations. Now, as it stands ready to take its next step from demo to deployment, here's my forecast for the top five NFV trends in 2016.

1.    We'll See Major Progress in the NFV Technology Lifecycle

Leading communication service providers (CSPs) will start to make more solid commitments to NFV. Those who haven’t already done so will begin to run major projects to explore how NFV can be used to improve network efficiency by reducing hardware diversity and increasing the level of automation. Service providers with existing data centers will favor central hosting of virtualized network functions, while edge NFV will be the entry strategy for CSPs that have focused on connectivity services so far.

2.    Certain NFV Use Cases Will Be Key (So Will Finding the Right Balance)

NFV deployments will be use-case driven with focus on providing customers with flexible and self-service approaches to ordering and upgrading services.

The introduction of NFV will be spearheaded by virtualization of customer premises equipment (CPE) as well as virtualization of mobile core networks. Many service providers will develop virtual CPE (vCPE) strategies in 2016 and some will achieve a small-scale launch before year end. These will center on customer edge router virtualization, as well as virtualization of firewalls, WAN optimization, security appliances and advanced tools for performance assurance and automated testing.

The replacement of dedicated hardware with standard servers delivers a cost benefit but it may actually worsen performance. A balanced approach to physical and virtual implementation of network functions will be the foundation of a successful NFV strategy.

3.    CSPs Will Take Their First Pragmatic Steps

The NFV architecture, as defined by ETSI NFV Industry Specification Group, is a target architecture which still requires specification for the interfaces between the different building blocks, especially for management and orchestration.

NFV will be deployed first with statically provisioned and tested virtual network function (VNF) bundles. Assuming the business case for device consolidation adds up, people will be tempted to deploy immediately rather than wait for a standardized management and orchestration solution to mature.

Service providers will rise to this challenge by developing pragmatic technology entry strategies to seamlessly migrate existing networks and operational practices towards the emerging NFV target architecture.

4.    There’ll Be a Big Shift Towards Open Networking and Disaggregation

Autonomous network control, based on distributed routing and signaling protocols, will be replaced by central control, as network, server and storage resource have to be closely aligned. The separation of data plane and control plane, interconnected by open interfaces, will become standard network design practice in public networks. CSPs will start aligning their network with this new paradigm.

Disaggregating a network into technology domains by open interfaces enables service providers to combine leading technology from specialized suppliers, rather than being stuck with compromised single-vendor, end-to-end solutions.

5.    Secure Connectivity Will Be the Foundation for NFV-Centric Networks

Enterprises are increasingly concerned by the number and diversity of cyber threats and this is creating a significant burden on their IT departments. Service providers will be able to provide enterprises with the expert support of specialist security professionals as well as use virtualization technology to outsource security functions to the cloud. Relocation of network functions impacts the risk profile. Service providers will be able to eliminate those concerns by offering fully encrypted connectivity between enterprise sites and their cloud data centers.