Does “SDN” Muddy Alcatel-Lucent’s Opto-Electrical Integration?

Pretty much everything these days is based on networking and software, which by current standards means that everything is SDN.  The trend to wash stuff with terms like SDN and NFV is so pervasive that you almost have to ignore it at least at first to get to the reality of the announcement.  So it is with Alcatel-Lucent’s announcement of its Network Services Platform, which is sort-of-SDN and sort-of-NFV in a functional sense, but clearly in the SDN camp from the perspective of the media and even many in Alcatel-Lucent.

At the basic level, NSP is a platform that sits on top of legacy optical and IP/MPLS infrastructure and provides operational control and unified management across vendor boundaries.  It exposes a unified set of APIs upward to the OSS/BSS/NMS world where services are created and managed, and it allows operators to manage a combination of optics and IP/MPLS as a cohesive transport network.  It could create the very “underlay” model I’ve suggested is the right answer for the network of the future.

The notion of unified software control is the “SDN” hook that a lot of people have picked up on, not the least because Alcatel-Lucent uses the term “SDN” to describe it in their press release.  Many SDN purists would disagree, of course.  The SDN approach they’d take is more like that of Open Daylight, which creates an SDN controller and puts legacy devices and interfaces underneath that controller as an alternative to OpenFlow as a control protocol.  The Alcatel-Lucent approach is actually a bit closer to what the ETSI NFV ISG seems to be converging on, which is a WAN Infrastructure Manager (WIM) that runs in parallel with the Virtual Infrastructure Manager (VIM).  Most in ETSI seem to put SDN and SDN controllers inside the VIM and use them for intra-VNF connectivity.

Network operators all seem to agree that 1) you need to evolve SDN out of current legacy infrastructure and 2) SDN has to have a relationship with NFV.  The question is how that should be accomplished—and Alcatel-Lucent’s NSP approach illustrates one of the viable options.  Does it illustrate the best one?  That’s harder to say, and it’s harder yet to say why they’ve taken this particular approach.

You probably all know my own thinking here.  I believe that all network services should be viewed as NaaS in the first place, meaning that I think that connection-model abstractions should be mapped either to legacy, to SDN, to NFV, or to mixed-model infrastructure as circumstances dictate.  I also believe that “infrastructure management” is a generic concept at the level where software control is applied, even if the infrastructure is for hosting stuff and not connecting it.

The Alcatel-Lucent approach, laid out in their NSP white paper, seems to make NSP and SDN more a parallel path than the unified element that their PR suggested.  The paper shows an NFV figure that places both NSP and Nuage under the operations/management layer rather than showing Nuage under NSP.  It’s also interesting to note that the Alcatel-Lucent press release never mentions NFV or positions either NSP or SDN relative to NFV.

Which I think is a mistake.  If you read the PR and even the white paper, you get the distinct impression that this is really all about optics and MPLS products.  There really is a need for coordinated SDN/legacy deployment so you can’t say that Alcatel-Lucent was guilty of SDN-washing, but they do seem to have missed an opportunity to position NSP in a more powerful way.  That’s worrying because it could be a reflection of their age-old silos problem.

I remember commenting a couple years after the merger that created Alcatel-Lucent that the new company seemed to be competing as much with themselves as with real competitors.  More, in some cases, because internal promotion and status was linked to relative success.  This problem kept Alcatel-Lucent from fully leveraging its diverse assets, to the point where in my view it prevented the company from giving Cisco a real run for its money in the network operator space.

In today’s Alcatel-Lucent we have three dominant business segments responsible for facing the future.  One is the IP group, which has been the darling of Wall Street because of its ability to create engagement and hold or gain market share.  Another is the Cloudband stuff where Alcatel-Lucent’s NFV lives, and the third is Nuage, the SDN people.  It’s hard to read the NSP material and not wonder just how much these three units are communicating.

If NSP is in fact what the press release suggests, which is an umbrella strategy to unify legacy and SDN technology under a common software-defined-and-decoded abstraction, then it’s a step forward for Alcatel-Lucent, but the company would still have to prove that their approach is stronger than one based on Open Daylight (I think that would be possible because of management holes in ODL).  If NSP is what Figure 4 of their white paper says it is, then it’s leaving the SDN/legacy separation to be handled by “the higher level” meaning operations and management systems.  That to me undermines the value proposition for NSP in the first place, because facilitating software definition can’t be simply letting the other guy to the heavy lifting.

Some of the operators, particularly those in the EU, have what I think is the right idea about the SDN/NFV relationship and their ideas should, in my view, be the standard against which stuff like NSP is measured.  Their vision is of an NFV-orchestrated world where services can call on multiple “infrastructure managers” that could provide both intra-VNF and end-to-end connectivity and use both SDN and legacy network elements.  It seems to me that this vision would benefit from a unified model of SDN/legacy control, which would be in effect a merging of Alcatel-Lucent’s NSP and Nuage positioning.

Which may be why we don’t hear about it.  This positioning would cut across all three of our future positioning trends, uniting what may be three positions that Alcatel-Lucent would like to keep separate for the moment.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing (Cisco is in my view dedicated to keeping the evolution toward SDN/NFV from impacting legacy sales in the current period), but it does create vulnerabilities.

Both SDN and NFV demand radical future benefits to justify the comprehensive infrastructure changes they’d involve.  We need to see what those benefits are to make the journey, and vendors who invoke the sacred names of SDN or NFV have to be prepared to show how their stuff fits in a compelling vision of that future infrastructure.  Vendors who don’t have to defend the present, meaning in particular software/server giants like HP or Oracle, could run rampant in the market while network-equipment competitors are still shifting from silo to silo.

I don’t think that legacy and SDN should be parallel concepts integrated at the ops level.  The NaaS model, IMHO, is best served by having vertical integration of higher (service) and lower (transport) layers based on policy or analytics.  Alcatel-Lucent actually has analytics and has all the pieces it needs to create the right model, and NSP is functionally a good step.  To make the benefits both real and clear, though, it seems they may have to fight those same old product-silo demons.