How HP’s ConteXtream Deal Might Change the Game

Hint:  It’s not how you think!

HP is certainly at least one of the functionality leaders in the NFV race, and the fact that they’re an IT player is important to senior management at many operators.  They’ve won what’s arguably the most important NFV deal yet (Telefonica), and they’re on track to deliver convincingly on operations integration.  In one regard, though, they reminded me of the lion in the Wizard of Oz; they lacked a heart.

SDN may be the critical heart of any NFV deployment and HP’s SDN position was “referential” in that they support OpenDaylight.  That’s not enough for some operators, and HP has now fixed that by acquiring  ConteXtream.  The move may signal some new HP aggression in the SDN/NFV space, and it may even move the ball in terms of “network as a service.”  Or it may be a simple tactical play, one that could even go wrong.

ConteXtream provides a form of “overlay SDN” not unlike the Nicira model that first popularized SDN as a concept.  That approach offers three potentially significant benefits.  First, overlay SDN is infrastructure-independent and so it doesn’t force HP to take a position on network equipment technology.  Second, ConteXtream implements OpenDaylight and so it reinforces HP’s strategic SDN commitments but realizes them in a form operators can buy and deploy (and they have done so already).  Finally, overlay SDN models are fairly easy to make end-to-end.  All you need is some software to do the encapsulation/decapsulation at any access point and you have a virtual network that behaves much like a VPN but can be deployed with incredible agility and in astonishing numbers.

There’s also a tactical issue that ConteXtream addresses.  HP has been forced to work with SDN from other players, including major competitors, at key NFV accounts.  This obviously keeps the competitors in play where HP would like to have complete control, and having their own SDN strategy could be a big step in that direction.

The best of all possible worlds would be that HP takes the ConteXtream deal for tactical benefits and strategic potential, but it’s simply not possible to tell whether that’s the case.  In his blog on the acquisition, Saar Gillai (head of HP’s cloud and NFV business) cites both service-chaining benefits and subscriber connection benefits for ConteXtream, and that could be an indicator that HP intends to use the deal both to support its current PoC activity (where other SDN vendors are sticking their noses in) and also to address broader SDN service issues.

The connection between all of this and NaaS is the big question, for SDN and for NFV.  There is no question that SDN is critical “inside” NFV where connections among VNFs have to be made quickly, efficiently, and in large numbers.  If you have SDN in place for that purpose, it would make sense to use SDN to provide connections outside the NFV enclave too, and that could open not only a broader NaaS/SDN business but also expand the scope of NFV.

We have virtual networks today using legacy technology; VPNs based on IP/MPLS and VLANs based on Ethernet standards.  The problem with the approach is that these networks are based on legacy technology; they have to be supported at the protocol/device level and there are limitations in their number and the speed at which you can set them up.  Overlay SDN can add virtual networking to legacy networking, removing most of the barriers to quick setup and large numbers of users without changing the underlying network or even requiring any specific technology or vendor down there.  I’ve blogged a number of times about the benefits of application-specific and service-specific virtual networks; overlay SDN can create them.  You could have NaaS for real.

This summary demonstrates three possible values of ConteXtream; you can connect VNFs with it, extend NFV to users with it, and build it into cloud and telecom services even without NFV.  HP seems likely committed to both the NFV-related missions, and if they were to embrace the third pure SDN mission and add in their operations-and-legacy orchestration capability, they could build services that could support new NaaS models, which could start a legitimate SDN arms race to replace the current PR extravaganza we tend to have.

The competitive dynamic between HP and Alcatel-Lucent might be a factor in that.  Nuage is still in my view the premier SDN technology, but as I’ve noted Alcatel-Lucent has tended to soft-ball Nuage positioning, perhaps out of fear of overhanging their IP group’s products and perhaps simply because of product-silo-driven positioning that I’ve already commented on.  HP fires a shot directly at Alcatel-Lucent with the ConteXtream deal, one they might not be able to ignore.

If Alcatel-Lucent takes a more aggressive NaaS position, it would follow that Juniper and Cisco could also be forced to respond in kind.  It’s possible that virtual-router leader Brocade (with Vyatta) could then respond, and all of this could create a new model for network connectivity based on SDN.

NFV could be impacted by this evolution too.  Overlay SDN doesn’t provide a direct means of coupling connection-layer QoS to the network layers that could actually influence it.  You can do that with operations orchestration of the type used in NFV, which could pull NFV orchestration up the stack.

Oracle’s positioning might also play in this.  Oracle has been pushing a TMF-and-operations-centric vision for NFV, but its Oracle SDN strategy for enterprises includes firewall, NAT, and load-balancing features that are most often considered part of NFV service chaining.  Augmented SDN could then be seen as a way of bridging some NFV features to the enterprise.  Since both Alcatel-Lucent and HP have SDN now and since both have NFV features, might this presage an “NFV lite” that adds some capabilities to the enterprise?  Remember that Alcatel-Lucent’s Rapport makes IMS a populist-enterprise proposition.

The net here is that an arms race with SDN could actually open another path to both operations orchestration and service opportunity.  In fact, you could secure a better cost/revenue picture from operations orchestration and SDN in the near term than from NFV, presuming you did NFV without those opex orchestration enhancements.  Some might think that means that NFV is at risk of being bypassed, but it’s not that simple.

In the long term, service provider infrastructure is a cloud on top of dumb pipes.  We have over a trillion dollars a year on the table from cloud-based services so dynamic that NFV will be needed to deploy and orchestrate them no matter whether we call them “network functions” or “cloud applications”.  What NFV is at risk for is the loss of a valuable early deployment kicker.  We can do without NFV today, but we’ll be sorry tomorrow if we try to do that.