Looking Inside the HPE-Telefonica Integration Flap

If there is a network operator who epitomizes the understanding of the real requirements for the next-generation carrier network, it is Telefonica.  If there is a vendor who has the product elements needed to make a complete business case for NFV, it’s HPE.  Yet we heard on Christmas Eve that Telefonica was terminating HPE’s integration agreement.  If Telefonica doesn’t explain further, we’ll never know for sure what’s happened here, so the best course is to explore the situation from what’s known, and see if some light dawns.

Back in the spring of 2013, when the NFV ISG had only gotten started and there were no specifications to read, Telefonica was already looking ahead to how NFV could transform its business, how it might bring cloud principles to network services.  I was asked by a big US operator in May 2013 who the operator leader worldwide in innovation might be, and I answered “Telefonica” without hesitation.

Since then, Telefonica has built an understanding of NFV from the top down, based on explicit business goals and the best understanding of what I’ll call “ecosystemic” NFV business principles that any operator possesses.  They also worked to drive a vision for open, independent, NFV in the NFV ISG.  They were the first operators to speak up in favor of intent modeling as a principle of open NFV architecture, for example.  Their UNICA network deal was the real deal in every sense of the word, the best example of a studied plan to redo networking as we know it.

HPE’s OpenNFV has led the field in terms of functional completeness since it came out in 2013.  The critical requirements for operational integration, support for legacy infrastructure, and strong service modeling were there from the first.  HPE has built a large, active, and committed partner program that includes most of the key VNF providers, and because HP is a premier cloud/server player, they have the potential to offer a complete NFV solution.  They’re also one of the six vendors who can deliver on the NFV business case.

The decision by Telefonica to make HPE their NFV integrator, made in early 2015, seemed a match made in heaven.  Since 2013 operators have been telling me that they’d prefer their primary NFV partners be server/IT companies.  To quote one operator, “We’d like to work with somebody who will make money if NFV deploys, not lose it.”  HP would obviously fit that bill, but that’s gone awry now.

“Integration” means putting stuff together.  There are a lot of ways it could be done in theory, and so integration relies heavily on an architecture to define component roles and interfaces.  If we had an architecture, we could expect vendors to fit their pieces into the appropriate slots, and minimal work should suffice to make the connections.  If we don’t have one, then every piece of technology that has to fit into NFV has to be fitted, explicitly, by somebody.  The more pieces, the more work.

If there is any operator on this earth who is dedicated to making a business case for NFV as a whole, Telefonica is that operator.  Thus, their UNICA plans are unusually sensitive to the issues that hamper NFV’s evolution to a real, complete, deployment.  Their integration needs are profound, and sensitive to the state of specifications.

The PoCs and trials that we’re undertaking, and have undertaken, are simply silo solutions in search of a unified model of deployment and management.  That model should have come from the ETSI NFV ISG, but it did not, and it won’t come from that source until we’re well into 2017 or even later.  OPNFV won’t produce it either; Telefonica hasn’t joined it perhaps for that reason.  Without a model for integration, an operator whose plans depend on ecosystemic NFV is going to run into issues.  Even vendors who have a full solution (the six I’ve named many times) still have to contend with the fact that their own solutions aren’t fully interoperable.  As Telefonica’s UNICA grows and involves more companies, it is exposed to more viewpoints that need reconciliation, and that’s going to be true for every operator who proposes NFV deployment.  If NFV is expected to transform operator infrastructure, it has to be ubiquitous, unified, and efficient across all services.

Enter now the Telefonica integration contract.  How do you produce an open approach without suitable references?  What provider of NFV solutions would happily conform to a competitor’s model?  When you have two vendors who want something different from the NFV’s VIM, or MANO, or VNFM components, how do you mediate the differences?  And if you can’t do that, don’t you end up not with “integration” but with a bunch of one-off strategies?

There are other rumors here that might shed some light.  What Light Reading reported was that 1) HPE’s deal with Telefonica was terminated, 2) that there would be a re-bid of the integration contract, and 3) that HPE could bid on it again.  That’s an unusual mix set of conditions.  It could suggest, as Light Reading has, that HPE wasn’t willing to work diligently to create an open framework for Telefonica.  I doubt this is the case, given HPE’s commitment to “open” NFV and the fact that such a move would have been credibility suicide.

What’s the answer, then?  All this could suggest that HPE didn’t know how to do the integrating; that it didn’t see that architecture.  It could also suggest that HPE and Telefonica didn’t reach a meeting of the minds on what Telefonica would do, and what steps the integrator would take.  The “I don’t know how” and “We can’t agree” options are the two most likely reasons for the Telefonica move, IMHO.

HPE, in my opinion, has the best overall NFV product set, but they have as a company relied more on supporting individual PoCs and trials than on promoting architectural unity.  If you look at their public presentations on their NFV progress you see slides that ballyhoo their success in PoCs, which given their diversity is a success in silo-building.

I believe that HPE could unify those silos, almost certainly better than others could, but they don’t seem to promote that capability even in forums like the TMF where an operational unity theme would clearly be appropriate.  I’m not saying that HPE failed to show their best side to Telefonica (nobody but HPE or Telefonica could say that), but they’re not showing it to the market overall.  That could mean they don’t see it themselves and simply were not up to the task before them.

Returning to the buyer side, Telefonica needs a complete NFV ecosystem.  The logical pathway to that is open standards and sample code, and the open and standards-generating activities have not supplied that.  If there is no global standard to integrate against, Telefonica would have to supply (and enforce) one.  The question is whether the integration contract recognized what was involved.  It means a lot of top-down models and relationships, and also getting others to go along with what you’ve defined.  Telefonica has to do the heavy lifting on that part, because no integrator would have the influence needed to force all the NFV clocks chime at the same time absent suitable specs.  Perhaps they didn’t recognize these issues, and perhaps that’s why there has to be a re-bid of the deal.

Anyone who tries to integrate NFV, to build a glorious whole from a disconnected and frankly not terribly inspiring service-specific business cases, has a challenge simply unifying their story.  Add to that the need to unify it in an open sense, wrestling cooperation from vendors who operators will admit don’t even cooperate in the formal standards processes now underway, and the challenge only gets bigger.

Not an insurmountable one, though.  The introduction of a few simple concepts, like top-down thinking, intent modeling of service hierarchies, state/event-based coordination of all management processes, and intent-modeled VIMs, could save everything, unify everything.  Telefonica could achieve all this, simply by paying somebody to do the right thing and telling everyone else to play nice or play elsewhere.  HPE and other integrator candidates could be the unifier, or one the players who take their ball and go home.

If the Light Reading reports are accurate, the fact that there’s to be a re-bid and that HPE will be invited to participate suggests that there may be at least a contributory issue with the RFP.  I think that issue is most likely related to the difficulty in integrating NFV components without a suitable model to refer to, and to use to enforce standards on all the players.  You can always custom-integrate something, but I don’t think Telefonica wants every VNF, every piece of NFVI, to launch a project to integrate it into infrastructure, whoever runs such a thing.  That’s not openness, and that proves that integration isn’t a path to an open approach, it’s an admission that you don’t have a reference to work against.

I just presented an open model for top-down NFV in four blogs, recapitulating two projects (CloudNFV and ExperiaSphere) that were both presented to NFV operators.  There are over 150 slides on that model available on the ExperiaSphere link, all developed from a top-down exploration of the benefits NFV needs.  There is no requirement for anyone to pay anything to use it or even acknowledge where they got it (if they use the term “ExperiaSphere” or the documentation they have to respect trademark and copyright, but otherwise, no restrictions).  Anyone at a loss for how to do NFV integration the right way is invited to review and use it as a whole or in parts, or invent something that does the same job and is as comprehensively documented.  “Anyone” here means Telefonica or HPE, or any of the other prospective bidders in the new integration deal.

Here’s the final truth.  Whether Telefonica had unrealistic expectations or HPE didn’t see (or didn’t want to do) what was needed, this is a vendor problem by definition.  No buyer has to convince sellers to sell to it; sellers have to convince buyers to buy.  If you field an NFV product you are responsible for making the business case for their adoption.  If that demands open architectures and integration, then you either have to provide for that or you can’t expect success.  The NFV vendor community, ultimately, has to get its house in order before next year when business drivers and open approaches are going to be paramount.  UNICA is the tip of the iceberg.