Can We See NFV Emerging from MWC?

Experience teaches a hard school so they say, but difficulty aside, experience often teaches the only lessons that matter.  We’re starting to get some experience in the NFV space.  It’s not so much direct deployment experience, because little has really happened to drive the kind of NFV deployment that would serve as the model for NFV-based transformation.  It’s marketing experience as vendors begin to confront for the first time buyer understanding of the transformation issues.  The results are starting to show in marketing.  NFV will go as vendor positioning takes it, so it’s well worth the time to look at the marketing lessons we’ve learned, especially coming out of MWC.

The most important thing we’ve learned is that operators are realizing that there’s more to NFV than ETSI specifications suggest.  We have two new management/orchestration groups (Open Source MANO and OPEN-O, presumably Open Orchestration) launched primarily by operators and aimed primarily at making the bare-bones ETSI model of NFV into something that can actually be deployed and generate benefits.

Telefonica’s announcement on Unica, the topic of my blog yesterday, wasn’t strictly a part of MWC but it was contemporaneous, and it illustrates that operators have moved beyond having tests and trials that prove that OpenStack can deploy a VNF just like it deploys an application component.  They’re now recognizing that they have to deploy an NFV that’s functionally useful or integrating with it won’t mean anything.

I think that the OSM white paper should be required reading for everyone in the NFV space.  It’s not necessarily that it’s the definitive statement on functionality or approach, but that it demonstrates that operators are recognizing the key things that NFV needs and the ETSI ISG hasn’t provided.  These things include full-scope service orchestration, inclusion of legacy network components, and multiple VIMs per implementation.

This new realization brings with it a new problem for many vendors.  NFV isn’t going to be simply a matter of blowing kisses or throwing money at influencers.  This isn’t easy stuff, and therefore everyone in the NFV space now has to face the fact that they need either a real position or risk being exposed as an NFV charlatan.

This point raises the second thing we’ve learned, which is that the big-money part of NFV is splitting off the rest of it, explicitly, for the first time.  While startups could hope to get a big revenue boost from selling the orchestration part of NFV, most established vendors need a bigger cash cow to milk.  NFV’s biggest is NFV Infrastructure (NFVI), which means the data center equipment that NFV will require.  Up to now, most vendors with NFVI aspirations have ballyhooed their general NFV positioning.  No more.

EMC’s Provider Cloud System is an example of an NFV strategy that’s focused on NFVI.  It’s also an example of why it’s critical that the NFV community accept something that Telefonica has made a part of its Unica architecture—multiple VIMs.  If there’s to be a rich community of infrastructure providers for NFV then each of them has to be able to supply the software that interfaces their stuff upward into the management and orchestration process.  Otherwise a few big infrastructure vendors would simply refuse to support other vendors with their VIMs and you’d be back to silos.

Intel may have a lot to do with this NFVI-independence development.  There are a lot of ways to slice up the server deployment that could come out of an optimum NFV success, but Intel chips would probably figure dominantly in most of them.  Thus, Intel has the most to lose if everyone sits on their hands.  For the last year, Intel has been gradually increasing the pressure on vendors to position NFVI effectively, and I think that’s now bearing fruit.

Splitting NFVI out of the NFV fog might result in splitting NFV out into its realistic market elements, particularly if the open-MANO stuff matures as it should.  Orchestration, VNFs, and NFVI are what NFV is about.  Together they’re great, but operators tell me that the togetherness has to come from open architectures and not from monolithic vendor offerings.

For the real NFV vendors this is mostly good because most of them don’t really expect to own the ecosystem.  HPE and Nokia, both of whom had a realistic shot at building a single-vendor NFV world for at least some clients, will find that harder to do at this point.  ADVA and Ciena, both of whom have very strong orchestration and management stories but don’t have all the other NFV pieces, may find themselves being courted by a host of NFVI hopefuls who need the business case, which NFVI alone won’t build.

The third critical lesson relates to this point.  NFV, as well as SDN, are technologies critical to optimizing the business case for advances like 5G, but only if they can make their own business case.  I got a lot of email from MWC offering variations on a single theme:  “I’m sick of hearing vacuous crap with the 5G label stuck to it!”  Paraphrasing an operator, you need SDN and NFV to make 5G anything more than an RF upgrade.  You know I agree with that one!  The financial media noted that in the smartphone space, there wasn’t much at MWC that qualified as inspirational or transformational.  Yet we had an NFV announcement.  Interesting.

Networking has changed profoundly in experience and expectation terms under the pressure of the web, content delivery, and mobile broadband.  Given that a network is already a mixture of complex technologies and vendors, we can’t expect that diddling it here or there in grand isolation is going to bring about much in terms of the business model or user QoE.  Standards like SDN and NFV are not a perfect driver of change, but they’re better than swatting at individual pieces of this and that.  Virtualization seems a clearly justified direction for network evolution, and we need to face that in its entirety, across all the pieces of the network, all the organizational fortresses of operators, and all the stakeholders (parasites and symbiotes alike).

We have no good standards-and-consortiums way to do this now.  Even SDN and NFV are too compartmentalized in focus to make their own business case, and to change networking at the fundamental level we’d have to involve so many standards development organizations that we’d collapse into an acronym black hole.  OSM is a proof that operators are moving into a very new and very uncomfortable position in trying to build the framework that defines their own future.  Many of their challenges are imposed by antiquated regulations that make a conference of operators about as illegal as a mob meeting.  We may have to rethink how the industry is regulated and allow operators to do more as a community without running into anti-trust risk.

I’m sort of optimistic coming out of MWC.  It’s not that trade shows are anything less than cynical marketing, or that I believe that collecting a bunch of people in one place makes them smarter (we all know the theory that the IQ of any group of people is equal to the IQ of the dumbest divided by the number of people).  It’s just that opportunism that fails in the end to support a realistic set of benefits to the buyer is doomed, and while all the vendors want to own or control the NFV opportunity, few think it can be stalled forever.  Sensibility just might be rearing its head.