Oracle’s NFV Orchestration: Does it Stack Up?

NFV as a technology has captivated a lot of people.  For it to be a “revolutionary technology” it has to do something revolutionary to the way we create network services and purchase network infrastructure.  That obviously has to start with some set of NFV products, created by credible sources and delivered with a compelling vision that wins over risk-adverse decision-makers.  Such a source has to find a benefit for themselves too, and this kind of win-win has been hard for vendors to frame so far.

Especially for software vendors.  There are three companies in the market that we would say are decisively on the software side of the vendor picture—IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle.  None of these guys have been powerhouses in NFV positioning; in fact all have been non sequiturs, at least until now.  Oracle is now stepping up in NFV with an announcement it made yesterday, and the fact that underneath the covers Oracle is a major cloud provider, a major application provider, and even a provider of highly credible carrier-level servers and operating systems software makes it even more interesting.

Oracle laid out its basic NFV approach last fall, and since all NFV approaches map to a degree to the ETSI E2E architecture it wasn’t revolutionary.  What they are now announcing is the details on their Network Service Orchestrator.  To put that term into perspective (meaning ETSI perspective) it’s kind of a super-MANO NFVO, but that’s probably not the way to look at it.  The best part of Oracle’s talk is that they’ve put both NFV overall and their own stuff on a kind of vertical stack from OSS/BSS down to infrastructure, so let me use that reference as a starting point to talk about Oracle’s strategy.

In the Oracle vision, OSS/BSS and the TMF world guide a series of service lifecycle processes that focus on what gets sold and paid for.  They also coordinate craft activity, so things about service ordering that involve real humans doing stuff like installing CPE are up in this top layer.  In the TMF world, this layer builds toward the Customer-Facing Service, a term I’ve used a lot.  The TMF has recently seemed to be working around or away from the CFS concept, but it may be making a comeback with the TMF’s ZOOM modernization process.

Below CFS in Oracle’s stack is the Resource-Facing Service (RFS), which is also a TMF term.  According to Oracle’s model, ETSI is a means of realizing RFSs, so the ETSI processes start below the RFS.  In a diagrammatic sense, Oracle is saying that their OSS/BSS offerings cover the top of the service-to-resource stack, and that their new Network Service Orchestrator will cover the bottom, with a critical overlap point at RFS.  If you’ve followed my blogs and my work in ExperiaSphere you know that I believe in CFS/RFS and believe that service-to-resource boundary is critical, so I’m in favor of this positioning.

Using this structure and this service-resource stack as their foundation, Oracle then applies service lifecycle management examples to explain what they’re up to, which again is something I do myself so I can hardly criticize it.  The end result is a strong presentation, positioning that is clear at the high level, and one that is anchored firmly in both the ETSI stuff and the TMF stuff.  Oracle is the only NFV player to offer a highly OSS/BSS-centric vision and to build a story from top to bottom that’s fairly clear.

Oracle also passes a couple of my litmus tests for sanity in VNF positioning.  They don’t say that OpenStack is NFV orchestration.  They have a generic VNF Manager (VNFM) and not VNF-specific ones.  The have analytics and policies.  There’s enough here to prove that Oracle isn’t just blowing smoke at the world.  The bad news is that I can’t validate a lot of the detail from their material, and there are questions that in my mind demand validation.  There’s not enough detail to prove it works.

Let’s start with NSO.  When Oracle introduced ETSI MANO as a concept they cited the notion that there were three layers of orchestration within it—MANO, VNFM, and VIM.  I don’t disagree that there are three “orchestrable elements” represented, but it’s not clear to me why we have three independent orchestrations going on there.  It’s not clear to me how these three orchestrations are coordinated with the Oracle approach.  My own vision is to model everything at all three levels using a common modeling language.  Since I don’t have any details on Oracle’s modeling approach can’t offer a firm answer to what they do, though their material suggests to me that there may actually be three different models and orchestrations here.

If you count the OSS/BSS service-level stuff there could even be four.  Oracle cites an example of a deployment that might involve a piece of CPE in some cases or a deployment of a virtual element in others.  Obviously if CPE has to be deployed in a truck roll, you’d have to manage the craft activity via OSS/BSS, but suppose there’s CPE there already, or that the service choice between a physical and virtual function is inside the network, a matter of whether a given user is in a zone where NFV is available or not?  Then operations really doesn’t have to know—it’s a deployment choice to parameterize or to host a VNF.  And all of these decisions have to be modeled, orchestrated, if you’re going to choose between rolling a truck and pushing functionality out to virtual CPE.  Is this orchestration option four, with yet another modeling and orchestration toolkit?  It would make more sense to collect orchestras here, I think.  If event-driven OSS/BSS is a goal then why not fold it you’re your functional-MANO stuff?  Maybe they do, but I can’t tell from the material.

The third point is that service/resource boundary and the overlap point for OSS/BSS and NSO.  There are a lot of powerful reasons why the service and resource domains have to be separated and a lot of benefits that could accrue once you’ve done that.  Some of these are truly compelling, significant enough to deserve mention and collateralization.  In fact, these benefits are the real glue that binds that lifecycle process set Oracle uses.  They are not mentioned much less collateralized.

But there is a lot of promise here.  Oracle’s cloud strategy is based in no small part on SaaS delivery, which means it has to face at the cloud level many of the same deployment and operationalization issues that operators face with NFV.  Solaris is a premier operating system for the cloud, with strong support for containers and big data built right in.  Oracle has database appliances that could be used to manage the collection, analysis, and distribution of operations information.  They even have servers, though their positioning suggests they’re not going to get hidebound on the question of using Oracle iron with Oracle NFV.  The point is that these guys could really do a lot…if all this stuff is as good in detail as it is in general.  So I’m not carping as much about their concepts as I am about their collateral.

Oracle has done the best job so far of positioning its NFV plans for public consumption.  Their slides are clear, they cover the right high-level points, and they demonstrate a grasp of the problem overall.  In that regard they’ve beat out all the other players, including those whom I’ve given the nod as the top contenders in NFV.  However, NFV has to be more than just a pretty face.  My own standard for rating NFV implementations is that I have to have documentation on a point to fully validate it.  Oracle did offer me a deeper dive briefing but as I told them, I can’t accept words alone and no further details in document form were provided.

I can’t give Oracle an NFV rating equal to HP or Overture, both of whom have given me enough collateral to be confident of their position.  I can’t even give them as much as I’d give IBM, whose SmartCloud Orchestrator is the only example of TOSCA modeling, which I think is the best approach for NFV.  They fit in my view of the NFV space where Alcatel-Lucent fits, a company who I believe has the stuff to go the distance but who’s not been able to collateralize their offering enough for me to say that for sure.

Of course, they don’t have to sell me, they have to sell the network operators.  I know they have decent engagement in some NFV PoCs, Oracle is going to make a push for their NFV strategy at Mobile World Congress and again at the TMF meeting in Nice in June.  These events will probably generate more material, and I’ve asked Oracle to provide me with everything they can to explain the details.  If I get more on them from any of these sources, I’ll fill you all in on what I see.  In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Oracle’s entry causes some of the other NFV players to step up their own game.  Singing a pretty song doesn’t make you a pretty bird in the tree, but absent the song nobody will know you’re there at all.