The Maybe-Secret-Mission of BroadHop

Cisco’s still on an M&A tear, this time buying up BroadHop, a company who provides specialized policy control software, particularly what’s now called the Policy/Charging Rules Function (PCRF) and was formerly known as the Policy Decision Point or PDP.  These are elements of a mobile multimedia infrastructure designed to provide for service quality control, and that’s led most to speculate that Cisco “needed” this for their mobile strategy or simply wanted to keep all the money in the deals.  BroadHop was a supplier to Cisco’s ever-growing carrier WiFi strategy.

I think there may be more to this.  Cisco’s not typically a company who buys up something that they already get on a simple partnership basis.  Anyway, the whole mobile policy control process is based on 3GPP standards, which would hardly seem a margin-building framework.  So what might this be?  I think BroadHop might just be a link in Cisco’s complicated (convoluted?) SDN evolution.

No, BroadHop doesn’t do OpenFlow.  But if we think of “SDN” as a black box, then the way it would be viewed by users would be based on its properties and not its implementation.  Benefits build business cases, and technologies are relevant only to the extent that they impact benefits and costs.  In the case of SDN, Cisco has (correctly I think) assessed the buyers and found that what they want from SDN is application control of network behavior.  Whether that’s done with OpenFlow or by having some magical, mystical, process invoked is of much less concern.  So Cisco, who doesn’t find the notion of having all of networking subsumed into a bunch of commodity forwarding engines fed over OpenFlow, is touting an SDN-over-what-I-sell-you approach.  That’s logical.

Just for starters, the fact that Cisco doesn’t want to build its SDN vision on OpenFlow should give pause to those who think it’s buying BroadHop for mobile reasons.  Remember those 3GPP standards?  Why is OpenFlow a threat and not those from 3GPP?  But if you dig deeper you can see another point.  If you need to control network behavior down at the bit-moving level and you don’t want to be branded with the scarlet letter “P” for “proprietary”, then you need to pick an industry-sanctioned approach.  The 3GPP Policy and Charging Control (PCC) framework fits that bill, and the fact that everyone thinks of it as a pure mobile play is all the better.

Suppose that Cisco applied BroadHop principles to EVERYTHING in networking and not just to mobile?  Now we have a policy-based mechanism for controlling connectivity and QoS, and that’s pretty darn close to what users would call a “software-defined network”.  If we add in the management/telemetry smarts that Cisco has been buying up, you get a picture of a new layer of service control—the policy and telemetry layer.  That’s’ the functionality that links to the “software” and defines the network.  Absent BroadHop, there’s no structured mechanism to turn central policies into distributed network handling decisions—except OpenFlow.  With a BroadHop PCRF, and with Cisco implementation of Policy/Charging Enforcement Functions (PCEFs) on its network devices, Cisco can communicate central knowledge of network status (from telemetry) and software needs (from DevOps tools and virtual-network interfaces like OpenStack Quantum) to the masses.  Furthermore, they can wrap their program around other vendors, because who among them will refuse to support the 3GPP mobile multimedia initiatives?

Obviously I can’t know what’s in Chambers’ mind here.  Obviously there may be a value to mobile policy control that Cisco sees as sufficient to justify the deal.  But I’m skeptical of a tactical acquisition in a flood of strategic ones.  Let’s take time out from examining the Theory of Relativity and toss a ball around, then go back and invent Unified Field Theory?  Anyway, Cisco does say that BroadHop fits into its ONE architecture, which is where its SDN stuff goes.

Nothing is said on Cisco’s blog about SDN with respect to the deal, and that’s also interesting.  They’ve not been shy about SDN-washing other M&A.  Instead they gave the tired old clichés about Internet traffic expanding (at least they didn’t say “exponentially” or I’d have puked).  So maybe BroadHop is the secret sauce, the thing that tips the whole strategy to competitors.  Or maybe I’m dreaming.  We’ll just have to see how this one develops.

For Cisco, the big question is whether BroadHop specifically and their SDN strategy in general is defending the right fort.  Oracle reported their numbers today, and they beat estimates sending their stock up after hours.  The interesting thing was that despite their CEO’s defense of the Sun acquisition, Oracle’s hardware sales declined by 16% y/y.  Oracle’s servers run Oracle’s software, and even there software can’t pull them through.  If Cisco’s SDN strategy is a boxes-first strategy in disguise, can that strategy succeed even if it’s perfectly executed?


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