Half Magic?

Progress is always a combination of evolution and revolution, adaptation of the current situation for the next progressive step versus leaping boldly out of line and sprinting to the finish.  Revolution provokes change and fright.  Evolution provokes comfort and stagnation.  Thus, as a practical matter, anything that gets announced could be viewed as either “revolutionary evolution” or “evolutionary revolution”.  We either accept a radical goal and try to get to it in a non-threatening way, or we accept a radical step toward a pedestrian goal.  So which is Ericsson’s notion of “network slicing” unveiled at BBWF?  Let’s see.

What Ericsson talks about is a future where services are sliced out of infrastructure using SDN principles, linked with dynamic virtual functions and cloud components, and the projected to users through highly automated lifecycle processes.  If you put the goal that way, it’s not only pretty revolutionary, it’s very congruent with my own view of the network’s future.

I think that all the SDN hype and the current SDN activity demonstrate that SDN has a value that’s greatest where the software rubber meets the infrastructure road.  Applications, users, and services are highly agile in their expectations because all of them are framed by momentary need.  We have, from the dawn of data networking, framed services based on collectivizing users.  You don’t network people, you network sites, and while Ginormus, Inc. may have a highly variable number of workers with variable needs, they probably don’t sprout sites like a blossoming peach and then drop them in a few days.  As we’ve moved more toward explicit worker empowerment, we’ve started to collectivize more on applications than on sites, and so we’ve taken some steps on the path to agility.  SDN can help.

Software-connection overlays are great ways to partition connectivity.  They have little or no capital cost and they’re really focused either at the user edge or at the application edge, where we can presume software is available to direct connectivity because there are computers there to run it.  I characterize a vendor’s SDN strategy primarily based on whether it supports both ends, only because you can’t (as a friend of mine noted recently) be “half-agile”.

The other interesting point is that once you take the connectivity mission and assign it to software, you’ve created some natural SDN domains.  Applications are like tenants, and so are groups of cooperating workers in branch locations—even customers and suppliers.  We can’t scale SDN today to the level of the Internet (and we may never do that) but we can definitely scale it to the scope of an application or a cooperative set of workers.

So what about all that lower-level stuff?  My contention is that you don’t want agile SDN there.  Imagine your neighbor deciding to make their video better by reallocating the access capacity that you happen to share with them.  Hackers could forget petty disruptions and bring everything crashing down in minutes.  There has to be a strict policy boundary around shared resources.  You can divvy up your own stuff any way you like, but you don’t mess outside your own litter box.

So what does this mean with respect to the Ericsson vision?  I think they captured the goal, but I’m not sure that they captured the road to it, or even demonstrated they know where that road is, or that they can get us onto it.  Ericsson is hardly a household name in data centers.  Their practice is more focused on mobile than anything else, and it’s not clear how this vision could be deployed in mobile infrastructure without any of the data center support that any agile IT-based service or software or feature demands.

If you look at Ericsson’s own progress with things like SDN, they’ve focused more at those lower layers, in no small part because they really don’t have a horse in the race for software-overlay SDN.  But if you don’t have that key element, the cornerstone of agility, isn’t it going to be hard to make this vision a reality?  Particularly if you also don’t have the cloud-data-center collateral.  Ericsson may have stated the dream, but they also stated the obvious in a little different and certainly more clever way.  Their credibility in their vision depends on having some clear path to execution, and that isn’t a multi-application card in an edge router—the primary thing Ericsson seemed to be linking to their execution.

This isn’t a good time for Ericsson to be singing without a backup band.  The company’s earnings just came out and they were disappointing in both the profit and revenue areas.  Like other “bit-belt” companies, Ericsson has been moving more to professional services and perhaps that’s what they believe will be their mechanism to achieve their vision.  Nobody thinks operators will make a transition to SDN, NFV, and the cloud alone.  But will they look to vendors who have most of the pieces of equipment and software, or those who have to get them from someone else?  Someone who, not surprisingly, has professional services aspirations of their own.

Remember my quote that you can’t be “half-agile?”  When I was a kid, I read a book called “Half-Magic” that was about a group of kids who found a magic coin that would give you some arbitrary half of whatever you wished for.  If the kids wanted to be safe and warm in LA, they’d end up half-way there.  I have to wonder if somebody at Ericsson may have read that same book.

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