NFV-at-the-Edge: Is it a Business?

Last week, Netsocket announced its “Virtual Partner Program”, which is hardly the first ecosystemic announcement made by vendors in the next-gen services and SDN/NFV space.  The program’s value raises some interesting points about network evolution and also about ecosystems and partner programs in general.

I blogged about Netsocket’s approach to NFV when they announced it.  In brief, it’s based on deployment of MicroCloud Servers to the customer edge, where they provide not only the “normal” service edge features but also a platform on which value-added features can be hosted.  When a customer wants a feature, you simply load it into the edge device and run with it.

The first interesting point here is the whole notion of virtual edges based on server platforms.  There are a number of vendors (Overture and RAD most recently) who have provided smart edge devices into which you can load something on demand, but these devices are custom hardware platforms—essentially edge switch/routers with some server intelligence.  Netsocket proposes the other direction; make servers into edge devices not the other way around.

If you believe that servers can play any role in hosting features, you have to believe in this edge mission.  The service edge would almost never create demands on handling and performance that a properly designed but still standard server couldn’t meet.  Hosting stuff at the edge might seem to fly in the face of the notion of economy of scale for NFV, but there are plenty of reasons why that’s not the case, worth examining here.

The first reason is that edge-based NFV lets you deploy stuff agley and at the same time limit the cost of prepositioning a resource pool in the hope you can fill it properly.  One sale, one box, no first cost headaches.  The value proposition is particularly compelling where the functions you’re deploying are likely to be in place for a protracted period, and most business service edge functions like firewall are going to get turned on up front and left in place, except for bug fixes and enhancements, thereafter.  You don’t have a lot of dynamism to justify complex resource allocation.

The second reason is management cost and complexity.  I’ve noted before that when you sell users features that add up to a “virtual device” you have to have two-faced management systems; the customer sees the virtual device but the NOC has to see the real resources.  Virtualizing management views isn’t something we hear about today (and we don’t hear it from Netsocket either) and it’s easier to deal with the management challenge when the resources a virtual feature uses are still dedicated to a single customer.  If you’re going to do that, it makes sense to stick the features in the edge device where they also create a logical service dmarc.

Of course the value of edge hosting is proportional to the value of the stuff that you have available to host there.  Netsocket has always been a promoter of being able to run pretty much anything at the edge, which theoretically gives buyers the opportunity to stick any software/network application from any open platform (including open source) into the MicroCloud Server and sell it as a feature.  Obviously the new partner program is designed to facilitate this, but if the platform is really able to run most applications (for Linux at least) why have a specific program?

This is where we come to a fork in the road on these kinds of programs.  Most partner ecosystem programs are a combination of a PR device to build buzz (a cheering section) and a strategy to broaden sales channels by involving more parties who presumably have more prospects.  While there’s nothing wrong with opportunism, it’s not strategic; in fact it carries risks of having the partner inertia impede strategic changes needed to address market trends and opportunities.  I think Netsocket is trying to walk the edge here in yet another way—they want to do something a bit more than the classic Vonnegut “granfalloon”  but not get themselves into the really deep issues.  So what line is that?

It’s certification.  For many users and even operators in an NFV world, to say that you can run everything is to say you’re not sure you can run anything.  Operators want their services to be made up of certified elements, meaning that they want to be sure that a given edge function can be dumped into the box and it will run symbiotically with what’s there and with the rest of the service elements.  If the vendor can certify stuff for edge hosting, the operator can be sure it will work.  That’s important for all the operators, but especially for Tier Two and Three operators who don’t have the resources to staff a certification lab of their own.

The issue for Netsocket and others is that the value of certification is proportional to the difficulties associated with integration.  A full-bore NFV implementation with management and orchestration done the way it needs to be done in the long run, would make it fairly easy to deploy new features and would also provide a better management linkage.  That could mean that the certification strategy could broaden to cover all of NFV—even pooled resources in data centers.  Right now the edge guys like Netsocket have an advantage in NFV because they can deliver at least service agility without the burdens of deploying pools of resources and complex management/orchestration tools.  But those tools will be needed eventually.

The edge is just another place to host stuff in the long run.  We can’t expect edge-only approaches to survive unless the bigger players who deploy a general model for hosting functions decide for some unknown reason to foreclose the use of their approach in edge devices.  I can’t think of any NFV candidate who would do that.

So why would Netsocket take a narrow approach?  I think we can draw on the lesson of Overture.  When they announced their own edge-box NFV strategy, Overture backed it with what’s still the most complete commercially available MANO platform out there.  They can do a lot with it.  But it doesn’t sell itself and it’s not clear what the monetization model for it would be.  If it’s going to take me a year to sell a software platform for MANO and if everyone really wants one that’s open-source anyway, how much could Overture—or Netsocket—make by being a full-service NFV player?  Why not just sell boxes?

Netsocket is doing the right thing in the near term.  The question is how long the “near term” will be relevant, and who specifically will come up with the broader answer.  Niche players’ biggest risk is a mass market.