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NFV and MEC: What’s the Difference? Article

Global Network

The short answer: Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) is NFV Infrastructure (NFVI) plus a mobile-focused software “application platform” or middleware. 

For the less-short answer, please keep reading.

MEC: NFV for Mobility

While NFV has been around for a while now, MEC is much newer. NFV has grown in popularity because it enables service providers to replace network appliances with software running on servers, enabling cost reduction, service innovation and deployment acceleration.

MEC is not NFV per se, but MEC does take the same principles that drive NFV and optimizes them for the mobile environment. Here is how they are similar:

• Standard platform. Like NFV, MEC is built on top of a stack of standard components, including a well-defined compute platform and virtualization layer.

• Open environment. MEC is designed to promote innovation through openness and interoperability, just like NFV.

• Software-focused. While NFV and MEC both need hardware on which to run, the emphasis is on moving functionality to software. Doing so brings benefits in terms of scalability, commercial models, and speed of innovation and deployment.

MEC Architecture Standardization

Like NFV, MEC is being developed in ETSI. ETSI has published an initial MEC white paper. Figure 9 on page 19 of the white paper shows an architectural diagram, which is reproduced below.


Not surprisingly, the MEC architecture looks very much like an NFVI diagram. The main difference is its “MEC Application Platform” and associated services.

How Are MEC and NFV Different?

NFV and MEC have similarities and a common heritage. So, how are they different, and why did MEC come about?

The main differences between NFV and MEC are the type, location and scope of applications they target.

Application Type. NFV can address a wide variety of existing network functions and applications, including routing, VPNs, firewalls, security, voice applications including IMS and SBC and so on. Each of these is independent, and uses NFVI for basic hosting and         networking functions.

In contrast, MEC provides a more focused MEC application platform specifically designed for supporting services associated with wireless access. The MEC application platform provides an abstracted way to interface with the complexity of the radio network,               enabling new applications. Here is a description of the MEC application platform from page 20 of the MEC white paper:

The MEC application-platform services provide the following set of middleware services to the applications which are hosted on the MEC server:

            • Infrastructure services:
                    o Communication services;
                    o Service registry;
            • Radio Network Information Services (RNIS);
            • Traffic Offload Function (TOF).

Note that the radio base station functionality itself is not part of MEC, but might be virtualized using NFV.

Application Scope: MEC is designed supporting high-level mobility applications. With MEC, wireless operators, over-the-top providers, and enterprises can quickly build advanced mobility applications that are small and portable. NFV addresses a much broader set of arbitrary network applications.

Application Location: Consumers are insatiable in their desire for quick access to bandwidth-intensive applications. In addition, emerging requirements for 5G deployments will stipulate bandwidth and latency requirements. MEC is designed to be implemented in the access part of the network (at the micro or macrocell or the first aggregation point) to help answer this demand by maximizing bandwidth and minimizing latency. In contrast, NFV is targeted for deployment throughout the network.

Can MEC and NFV Coexist?

Yes, but the details are still being defined. The following is from Appendix A.5 of the ETSI MEC “Framework and Reference Architecture” (ETSI GS MEC 003 V1.1.1):

Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) are complementary concepts that can exist independently. The mobile edge architecture has been designed in such a way that a number of different deployment options of mobile edge systems are possible. With respect to NFV, a mobile edge system can be realized independently from the presence of an NFV environment in the same network, or can be coexisting with it. As both MEC and NFV are based on the use of virtualisation technology, MEC mobile edge applications and NFV virtualized network functions can be instantiated partly or entirely over the same virtualisation infrastructure.

The reference architecture has been designed in such a way that further synergy between MEC and NFV can be achieved.
Multiple scenarios for deployments are possible, depending on operators’ preferences for their networks and their migration strategy, e.g. fully virtualised environments or mixed environments, with MEC being deployed first, or NFV being deployed first, with different levels of integration between the two technologies, taking into account secondary aspects such as multi-tenancy, etc.

A dedicated Group Specification, ETSI GS MEC 017 [i.5], describes the topic in more detail.

The GS MEC 017 specification cited above is still in development. In the meantime, here is a possible example of co-existence:

• A radio base station might have its control and data functions virtualized using NFV, enabling scalable deployment on standard servers.
• The same server could be used to host a MEC environment that would enable simple access to the radio resources to build advanced services that can leverage the high bandwidth and low latency of the MEC location.

MEC and NFV: Partners in Progress

MEC and NFV grew from the same drivers: the need to leverage cloud technologies and a software-focused infrastructure to drive network innovation. While NFV addresses the larger universe of applications, MEC has a narrower focus on mobility applications. However, MEC and NFV can and will co-exist in networks, and will be used together to facilitate service innovation.

By Prayson Pate, CTO at ADVA Optical Networking


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