Facing Networking’s Era of Change

We’ve already seen signs that mobile broadband is gutting at least the near-term PC sales, signs that Intel’s quarterly numbers only confirm.  We have lived for over thirty years in the personal computer age, and PCs have transformed just about everything in our lives and in business.  Now they’re dinosaurs.  My point is that if mobile broadband can shake the literal foundation of modern technology, it’s going to shake pretty much everything and we need to understand that.

Yahoo needs to understand that too.  Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, said that it would take years to turn the company around.  They don’t have years.  If Yahoo wants to jumpstart itself, it will have to take advantage of a market revolution to do that, and the market revolution of our generation is right here, right now in mobile broadband.

This week, we’re having the ballyhooed ONF event.  Next week we have an NFV conference.  You can fairly say that both these activities are aimed at dealing with changes in networking, but I think it’s fair to ask whether either SDN or NFV is being driven by mobile broadband.  If they are, then we should see some signals of the shift in their early work.  If they’re not, then we have to ask whether either is going to meet its goals, its potentials.

Operators have for five years now outlined the same three top priorities for monetization; content, mobile/behavioral, and cloud computing in that order.  Their priorities have been set financially rather than technically; they saw content traffic as a big threat and so monetizing it was a big priority.  They saw the cloud as a business service and something outside their basic comfort zone, even in terms of setting financial goals, so they had it at a lower priority.  Over the five years since this started, though, the cloud has jumped into high gear with operators and where we stand now is that the cloud monetization projects have outrun everything else.  That leaves mobile/behavioral opportunity, the thing mobile broadband is enabling, in last place.

You can see this in the SDN stories.  If you look at a mobile broadband deployment from a sparrow’s vantage point, you see cell sites springing up like spring flowers (well, spring flowers in a normal spring—we’re not seeing that many yet) and backhaul trunks spreading like galloping tree roots.  Where?  In the metro areas.  Wireline broadband is an access/metro problem.  So tell me this; where are the stories about how SDN is going to revolutionize that space?  We have SDN in the data center.  We even have (via Google’s work) SDN in the core.  Ericsson has told a basic SDN-metro story but only a basic one, and when other vendors have made what could have been SDN-metro announcements there was no metro in them.

In the NFV space, there is a double-barreled question in the mobile broadband area.  First, given that the white paper the carriers issued at the launching of NFV focused on the migration of virtual functions from custom appliances to generic hosts, it tended to focus on stuff already being done.  Mobile broadband changes and opportunities aren’t represented in today’s appliances.  We’re actually searching for an architecture to support them, and logically the NFV architecture designed to host past-service elements in an effective way should also be tasked with supporting the future effectively.  But focusing on migrating existing features will miss the mobile/behavioral fusion that mobile broadband is driving, and that’s the biggest trend in all of networking.

The second point for NFV is the cloud.  That same initial white paper talked about virtualization as the host of the functions.  I pointed out from the first that the architecture for network feature hosting had to be broadened—the cloud is the logical vehicle.  This is especially true given that those operator monetization projects that involve the cloud advance twice as fast as those that do not, even when the projects aren’t aimed at offering cloud computing services of any sort.  Content cloud equals progress.  Mobile cloud equals progress.  NVF cloud is likely to equal progress too, so we need to see whether the group will accept that reality and embrace something that can move all its goals forward, while at the same time making the mobile-broadband-driven changes in the market an implementation priority.

Even the cloud has to change, though.  The conception we have of cloud computing today is just VM hosting of applications that were written before the cloud was even conceptualized.  Well, we’ve conceptualized it.  Will we keep writing applications in a way that demands the cloud morph into something that looks pretty much like legacy IT, or will we do things differently?  Yes, I know that today’s answer is “stay the course”, but that’s because vendors are all taking root in their current quarterly goals and becoming trees.  SDN and NFV will show startups where it’s possible to link new network visions and new cloud visions to new revenue opportunities.  That will include addressing the point-of-activity empowerment that mobile broadband enables by structuring applications to deliver just-in-time insight to the worker, whether they’re trying to make a sale or pry the cover off an inspection panel to start work.

Every network vendor, every IT vendor, is both empowered and threatened by the current trends, including Intel, Microsoft, Dell, HP, IBM, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, and yes Yahoo and Google.  We have seen the power of this change already.  We’ll see more of it, and more vendors will stand or sink based on whether they buck it or ride it.  This quarter is only the start.  More is coming.

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