Is Ericsson’s NodePrime Deal Even Smarter Than it Looks?

Ericsson has made some pretty smart moves in the past, long before their smartness was obvious to the market.  They may have made another one with their acquisition of NodePrime, an hyperscale data center management company that could be a stepping stone for Ericsson to supremacy in a number of cloud-related markets, including of course IoT.

It seems the theory behind the deal is clear; if IoT or NFV or any other cloud-driven technology is going to succeed on a large scale, then data centers are going to explode.  Thus, dealing with that explosion would be critical in itself, but to make matters worse (or better, from Ericsson’s view) just getting to large-scale success will certainly require enormous efficiency in operationalizing the data center resources as they grow.  Hence, NodePrime.

Data centers don’t lack sources of operations statistics; there are a couple dozen primary statistics points in any given operating system and at least a half-dozen in middleware packages.  In total, one operator found they had 35 sources of data to be analyzed per server and 29 per virtual machine, and then of course there’s the network.  The basic NodePrime model is to acquire, timestamp, and organize all of this into a database that can then be used for problem and systems management and lifecycle management for installed applications.

Hyperscale data centers aren’t necessarily the result of SDN, NFV, or IoT.  While NodePrime positioning calls out that target, they also make it clear that they can manage data centers of any size, which means that they could probably both manage the individual distributed data centers operators are likely to deploy in SDN/NFV/IoT applications, but also the collective virtual data center (that’s a layer in NodePrime, in fact).  The NodePrime model also has three functional dimensions.  You can manage data centers this way.  You can manage service infrastructure this way, and feed the results into something like NFV management, and you could even build an IoT service by collecting sensor data like you collect server statistics.  I’m told that some operators have already looked at all three of these functional dimensions, and that NodePrime had said they support them all.

If we presumed that the management of an application or service was based on the analysis of the resource management data that was committed in support, then any complicated service could have insurmountable management problems.  If we presumed that a smartphone had to query a bunch of traffic sensors directly and analyze the trends and movements to figure a route, the problems are similarly insurmountable.  The fact is that any rational application based on using information has to be designed around an information analysis framework.

A framework has to do three things.  First, it has to gather information from many different sources using many different interfaces.  Second, it has to harmonize the data into a common model and timestamp and contextualize the information, and finally it has to support all the standard analytics and query tools to provide data views.  NodePrime does all of this.

The NodePrime model could represent a management abstraction very easily (datahub, in NodePrime).  The resources at the bottom are collected and correlated, passed into an analytics layer in the middle (directive) and used to create an abstraction of the resource framework that’s useful (virtual datacenter in the current model, but why not “virtual infrastructure?”)  This abstraction could then be mapped to service management, VNF management, and so forth.

It also works for IoT and contextual services.  Collect basic data at the bottom, use queries to generate abstractions that are helpful to users/applications, then expose these abstractions through microservices at the top.  NodePrime supports this too.

Well, sort of does it.  The meat of the value of NodePrime will come from the variety of information resources it can link and the range of analytics it can support.  For SDN, NFV, IoT, and other cloud applications and services, a lot of this is going to be developed by an integrator—like Ericsson.  Ericsson can enrich the capabilities of NodePrime through custom development and specialized professional services, which of course is what it likely wanted all along.

This isn’t the first time that a vendor has come at the notion of a network revolution driven by data centers and not networks.  Brocade had this message as the foundation of their NFV position in 2013 and gained a lot of traction with operators as a result.  They didn’t carry through with enough substance and they gradually lost influence.  Brocade has recently been making some acquisitions of its own, and one in the DevOps space that could arguably be an orthogonal shot at the data center space, because it’s targeting deployment and lifecycle management.

An inside-out vision of network evolution is logical, then, but it’s also a climb.  The further you are from the primary benefit case with a given technology, the longer it takes for you to build sales messaging that carries you through.  That’s been the problem with SDN and NFV, both of which in simplistic terms postulate a completely new infrastructure that would be cheaper to run and more agile.  How do you prove that without making a massive unsupported bet?

That’s where an Ericsson initiative to connect NodePrime decisively with IoT could be extravagantly valuable.  Industrial IoT isn’t really IoT at all, it’s simply an evolution of the established process control and M2M trends of the recent past.  However, the model that’s optimal for industrial IoT happens to be the only model that’s likely to be viable for “broad IoT”, and also a useful model for evolving services toward hosted components.  Ericsson could have a powerful impact with NodePrime.

The question with something like this is always “but will they?” of course.  There’s enough value in hyperscale or even normal data center management for cloud providers and operators to justify the buy without any specific mission for NFV, SDN, or IoT.  NodePrime was part of Ericsson’s Hyperscale Datacenter System 8000 before the deal was made.  However, the press release focuses on what Ericsson calls “software-defined infrastructure” in a way that seems to lead directly to NFV.

It’s not clear that Ericsson sees NodePrime’s potentially crucial role in IoT, or how success there might actually drive success with “software-defined infrastructure” by short-cutting the path to benefits and a business case.  NodePrime had some industrial IoT engagements before the Ericsson deal and Ericsson is surely aware of them, but there was no specific mention of IoT in the press release.  I had some comments from operators on the deal that suggested Ericsson/NodePrime had raised the vision with them at the sales level, but it’s not clear whether that was a feeler or the start of an initiative.

The qualifier “industrial IoT” used by NodePrime and some publications covering the story may simply reflect the fact that “industrial IoT” uses internal sensor networks and IoT fanatics aren’t prepared to let go of the notion of promiscuous Internet sensors quite yet.  We’ll have to see how this evolves.