Are Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent Finding the Cloud/Network Formula?

Cisco continues it’s M&A tear, this time picking up Cariden, a specialist in aligning network behavior with business goals.  The focus of the deal has been on what Cariden could do for Cisco’s SDN position, but Cariden is more complicated than that, I think.  It also enhances Cisco’s position in Network Functions Virtualization and improves Cisco’s overall potential for operational integration and orchestration…in theory.  Again, we’re left to speculate on the real motives, so let’s get to it.

What makes Cariden special is the fact that it supports gathering of network intelligence from multiple devices and layers, and integrating that intelligence into an analytic framework that lets operators decide how to best handle traffic and optimize resources.  Resource optimization based on telemetry is most valuable when you cross layers of technology—IP and optical or networking and computing.  It can also be used to apply non-technical metrics to network decisions, and to factor in things like historical behavior.  Absent analytics and telemetry of the sort Cariden can provide, networks live in the moment.  With the Cariden capabilities they can use the totality of information available to make the “best” decision, no matter how you define the superlative.

I think it’s clear that the primary objective of this move is to enhance network behavior, improving QoS by using more predictive analytics to figure out what the best paths and decisions are, and to improve utilization and economics.  Cisco knows a basic truth, which is that while you can claim TCO benefits all you want nobody has done anything whatsoever to prove them to buyers except Huawei.  Cisco also knows that if you want to reduce network TCO by some means other than reducing equipment prices, you have to push bits more efficiently.  Hence, Cariden.

The secondary goal for the deal in my view is to enhance Cisco’s cloud position.  Remember that Verizon has said that the future network services will look more like cloud services than like VPNs.  Add to that the reality that picking the best spot for a machine instance is a combined IT/network problem; where you put something has network cost and performance implications, and clearly what you run something on has IT performance implications too.  Cariden can help balance this.

This secondary goal is reinforced by the fact that Alcatel-Lucent’s cloud strategy, CloudBand, is as I noted yesterday a building of an operationalizing layer on top of the traditional cloud.  CloudBand, in short, does what I’ve just said the cloud needs—it picks the right place to host an application instance and even when to spin one up, based on business criteria and the totality of resource conditions.  And remember that it was Alcatel-Lucent who won that deal with the California university—the one that Cisco overbid by a hundred billion.  Cisco just has to see Alcatel-Lucent as a major threat, perhaps as THE major threat since Cisco rival Juniper seems to have stalled in its software initiatives.  You can’t be a cloud player without software, period, and Cisco of all the network guys has to be thinking about cloud because they’re the only player who has servers.

But CloudBand has something else, something that you have to dig a bit for.  I spent an hour yesterday talking details of the technology, and there’s more to it than the PR would suggest.  Not only does Alcatel-Lucent have a more aggressive plan, they have actually delivered on at least a couple of applications based on that plan, one of which can be cited.

Think of CloudBand as a layer above the cloud stacks, connected to resources through the High Leverage Networking APIs.  It creates a framework for applications to run, a framework that can deploy them, expand them in number of instances, contract them, move things around to improve performance or respond to problems…you get the picture.  But CloudBand can also effectively host higher-level features, and one that Alcatel-Lucent is prepared to talk about is load balancing.  There’s probably nothing more important to a true enterprise cloud service than load balancing because in the real world hybrid clouds will have to respond in an instant and elastic way to changes in demand or changes in resource state (read “failure”).  What Alcatel-Lucent does is to add a set of APIs to CloudBand to expose load-balancing-as-a-service to applications.  The same model could be used to create other services (and it has, Alcatel-Lucent is just keeping the trials quiet at the moment).

CloudBand is the threat to Cisco’s plans here, in short.  If Alcatel-Lucent can drive this second level of capability—the ability to host as-a-service elements in CloudBand and expose them to applications—then they can implement Network Functions Virtualization.  Remember too that Alcatel-Lucent has already said they will cloud-host IMS, which is a step operators want in their NFV evolution.  If Alcatel-Lucent virtualizes not only “network internal” functions but also other functions (even things like open-source databases or retail service elements) they could expand CloudBand into a platform that developers could write to, and that operators could customize to differentiate themselves.  In short, Alcatel-Lucent could really mess up Cisco’s whole strategy for the cloud.


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