Comcast Joins ONOS/CORD: Why We Should Care a Lot

Comcast just joined the ONOS project, and I think that raises an important question about SDN, NFV, and the whole top-down or bottom-up model of transformation.  Couple that with the obvious fact that you read less about SDN and NFV these days, and you get a clear signal that something important might be happening.  Several things are, in fact.

For those who haven’t followed the ONOS and CORE projects (I blogged on the concept here), they’re a software-centric model for service provider evolution that presumes the future will be created by software hosted on generic virtualized servers.  CORE is the “Central Office Re-architected as a Data center”, and it’s a conceptual architecture that has been realized through the Open Network Operating System (ONOS).  What I liked about this approach is that it’s a kind of top-down vision-driven way of approaching transformation.  Your goal is to make your CO more data-center-centric, right?  Then CORD is clearly applicable.  Apparently to Comcast too, which raises a broad and a narrow point.

The broad point is the “why” of CORD overall.  Why is the CO being architected as a data center interesting?  Clearly, the superficial reason is that’s what people think they’re going to do, and the deeper question is why they think that.

There isn’t a single network market segment today that’s not already seeing “bit commoditization”.  Bandwidth isn’t intrinsically valuable to consumers or businesses—it’s a resource they can harness to do something that is valuable.  I’ve talked for years about the problem of the convergence of the price-per-bit and cost-per-bit curves.  The key now is to forget causes for the moment and focus on the facts:  This is happening everywhere and this is never going to reverse itself.  Transport, meaning connecting bandwidth between points, is not a growth market.  We all sort of know this because we all use the Internet for what’s there, not how we get it.

Which means, of course, that the profit of the future lies in providing stuff that people want to get to, not the means of getting to it.  OTT stuff, by definition, is the way of the future as much as transport is not.  The “top” that it’s “over” is transport networking.  So, what is an OTT’s “central office?”  Answer: A data center.  Google has a bunch of SDN layers, but they’re not to provide SDN services, they’re to connect Google data centers, and link the result onward to users, advertisers, and so forth.  In this light, CORD is just a response to a very clear market trend.

It’s a response in a terminological way, for sure, but how about realism?  Realistically, CORD is about virtualization at a level above what SDN and NFV describe.  You virtualize access, for example, in CORD.  You don’t get specific about how that’s done yet.  CORD also has an orchestration concept, and that concept is aimed at the same higher level, meaning that it’s above things like SDN and NFV.  But even higher than that is the simple truth that there are real network devices in data centers.  CORD isn’t trying to get rid of them, it’s trying to harness them in a way that submits to software automation of the lifecycle processes of the resources and the services built on them.

If I take a CORD-like approach to transformation, I might say to an operator CFO “Focus your transformation investment on software automation of service lifecycles and in the first year you can expect to obtain opex savings of about 2 cents per revenue dollar.  Focus the same on SDN/NFV transformation of infrastructure and in Year One your savings will be one tenth of that.  To achieve even that, you’ll spend 30 times as much.”  Even in 2020, the CORD-like approach would save more opex than SDN/NFV transformation would, and with the same efficiency of investment.

Which brings us to Comcast.  Do they advertise the beauty of DOCSIS and the elegance of a CATV cable, or do they push Xfinity, which is a platform, meaning it’s hosted software?  Even if you go to Comcast for Internet, you’re not going there for SDN or NFV.  You’d not see that level of transformation, but you already see (if you’re a Comcast customer) the transformation to a data-center-centric service vision.

Which raises the most interesting point of all.  If the transformation future of network operators is to look more like OTTs in their service formulation, and if re-architecting their COs to look like data centers is the high-level goal, then what role do SDN and NFV play?  Answer: Supporting roles.  SDN’s success so far has been almost entirely in the data center.  NFV is a partially operator-centric feature cloud strategy.  If my CO is a data center I can for sure connect things with SDN and host virtual functions.

Given this, is Comcast buying into a specific data-center-centric approach to future services by joining CORD/ONOS?  Or is it simply acknowledging that’s where they’re already committed to going, and looking for standards/community help along the way?  I think it’s the latter, and I think that’s a profound shift for network operators, equipment vendors, and those promoting infrastructure modernization as a step toward transformation.

Future service revenues will not come from tweaking the behaviors of connection services, but from the creation of an agile OTT platform.  That platform may then utilize connection services differently, but the platform transformation has to come first.  We have connectivity today, using legacy technologies.  We have successful OTTs today, depending for their business on that connectivity.  Operators who want the future to be bright have to shine an OTT light on it, not try to avoid OTT commitments by burying their heads in the sands of tweaking the present services.

And by “operators” here, I mean all operators.  If you run a network and provide connection services using fiber or copper, mobile or satellite, IP or Ethernet or maybe even TDM, then you have the same basic challenge of bandwidth commoditization.  The Financial Times ran a piece on this in the satellite space, for example, saying that if capacity was what the industry sold, then capacity demand was already outstripped by capacity supply even before a new generation of higher-capacity birds started to fly.

How do you meet that challenge?  You reduce current service cost and you chase new service revenues.  How do you do that?  You evolve from a business model of connecting stuff (which provably means you connect your OTT competitors to customers and disintermediate yourself) to being the stuff that users want to connect with.  Which is why CORD is important, and why Comcast’s support for it is also important.