Is Alcatel-Lucent Stuck in the Shallow End of Cloud/SDN?

I’ve been harping on Alcatel-Lucent’s need to offer something tangible in cloud and SDN, and they’ve announced something in both spaces.  The question is whether the concepts will go far enough, especially given the relatively late positioning.  It’s not that all their competitors have jumped out though, so Alcatel-Lucent still has a chance to set some agendas.  Did they?

In the SDN space, Alcatel-Lucent is taking what’s  becoming a common refrain; supporting the functional goals of SDN but without the emphasis on standards.  That mirrors Cisco’s vision, what COULD be an excursion into the concept without the specific details most would associate with SDN.  In the case of Alcatel-Lucent, SDN is part of their “Application Fluent Networks” concept, and while the SDN goals are programmability, application awareness, and a global control view, it’s application awareness that forms the centerpiece of the Alcatel-Lucent SDN vision.

Alcatel-Lucent’s positioning seems to focus on making “SDN” mean more than virtual networks a la Nicira, a worthy goal in my view given that traditional virtual networking is simply a tunnel overlay with little ability to manage experiences.  The Alcatel-Lucent concept is to employ the tools in Application Fluent Networks to create application-specific network behavior end to end.  Given that there’s no real capability within the standards (OpenFlow) to do more than make a single switch bend to your will, the functional scope of Alcatel-Lucent’s approach is positive and helpful.

The specific virtual networking linkage comes from enhancements to OmniSwitch to make it VM-aware (and VMware-certified), which allows Alcatel-Lucent to manage experiences down to the linkage of applications to VM instances.  Thus, properly, Alcatel-Lucent is creating an SDN strategy by linking virtual networking to application awareness.  They won’t add in OpenFlow until 2014 according to some sources, but I hear it will be available next year.

On the cloud side, Alcatel-Lucent is refining its operator cloud positioning (CloudBand), making it clear that the differentiators will be a stack-agnostic/network-equipment-agnostic model combined with a focus on the management of cloud infrastructure, especially deployment of new cloud nodes.

I’ve noted before that cloud software is largely a set of management APIs that control resource pools and assignment of resources to applications.  Thus, the Alcatel-Lucent focus is logical, and it appears that they intend to integrate the network management processes and the cloud management processes more tightly.  Whether this means they’ll contribute Quantum stubs and perhaps define virtual network models isn’t clear.  Thus, it’s not clear just how much direct symbiosis there is between the cloud announcement and the SDN announcement I’ve already discussed above.

Since both these announcements came out on the same day, it would seem logical to assume there’s a linkage beyond semantics.  The multi-vendor stuff may be the linchpin here, because Alcatel-Lucent has long been perhaps the leading player in multi-vendor network management tools.  Certainly a concept of cloud/SDN built  around a universal network management tool and accommodating all the cloud models (or at least OpenStack, CloudStack, and EC2) would be very powerful for operators, most of whom are looking at the cloud as an activity based on a combination of large-scale resource pools they provide and software they obtain from partnerships.  For this sort of situation, flexibility in supporting anything that comes along could  be critical.

I think the thing missing from both these announcements is the clear vision of a shared future for them.   I doubt anyone believes that the “software” that defines the SDN is cloud software, in which case a cloud strategy should explicitly engage SDN principles.  Clouds include data centers  and there is an SDN linkage to Alcatel-Lucent’s data center approach, but you have to dig through a lot of links to tie it into CloudBand.   That means a lot of potential buyers won’t find any linkage at all, and make perhaps even more wonder if such a link is even intended.  That would weaken the authority of both announcements for those who think the cloud and SDN are linked.

I still think that Alcatel-Lucent could do more for the cloud, more for SDN, and in doing so, more for Alcatel-Lucent.  They have a complete service-layer API strategy, a clearinghouse for APIs in general, a cloud plan that promises to host the most critical service-layer element Alcatel-Lucent has (IMS) in the cloud.  Why not embrace this sort of thing in CloudBand, and why not link it to SDN?  I think they could have sung a truly compelling story in both these areas, but they seem to have left quite a bit on the table.  Given Cisco’s aggression in the cloud and in software, that’s a pretty significant risk.


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