Is Vyatta the Dross of Brocade’s Breakup, or the Hidden Gem?

I mentioned Brocade and its Vyatta virtual router yesterday, as a proof point that perhaps we have too simplistic a view of the value of “virtualization” in operator transformation.  I want to go into the story in more detail now, because there’s a lot of important stuff to be learned.

One of the most important metrics for a vendor is their ability to influence the strategic planning of their prospect and customer base.  In the early part of this decade, Brocade’s influence had been shrinking noticeably—by almost half, in fact, between 2010 and early 2013.  Then along came their Vyatta positioning and suddenly Brocade’s influence more than doubled in a single half-year period.  In the following four years, though, it fell back to slightly below its pre-Vyatta level.  This sequence is a story in itself.

Both operators and enterprises were initially enthralled by the notion of a software router.  In that critical spring, I met with a couple of Tier One vendors and listened as they laid out their plans to adopt the Vyatta router.  I even heard Brocade’s story that NFV wasn’t really about networking, it was really about the data center.  That story, as much as the virtual router, resonated with the network operators, but the NFV position ended up creating some poisoning down the line, as we’ll see.

What happened then?  In the fall of 2013, Brocade had already lost 13% of their spring strategic influence, according to my surveys.  They lost another 20% in the following spring survey, and you can see the trend.  Brocade never recovered from this decline.  At one level, what this says is that Brocade no longer had the influence to drive decisions and thus couldn’t exploit the insights it had communicated.  That’s true, but it begs the question of how they lost the influence in the first place.

Suppose you see a news story title that grabs you.  You click on it, and get a nonsense piece.  You don’t stick around to read drivel just because it’s there, you hit the back button and go on browsing.  If you apply this behavior to operator buyers, you see that it’s easy to generate interest in something, but the follow-on to that interest has to be just as insightful or more than the jazzy headline that created it.  Brocade, in that critical year after their insight success, had no credible follow-up.

What do you do with a virtual router?  Answer: Route.  You replace a physical box, in short.  That could be an attractive concept to operators that were first trying to control spending because of eroding profit per bit, and second were looking for a new and agile infrastructure model.  What they expected from Brocade was a viable story on how virtual routers would result in a net reduction in network spending, and how they could create that agile infrastructure.  In short, they wanted a credible virtual network architecture that could be costed out, analyzed, tested, and adopted.  They didn’t get it, for two reasons.

The first and most cynical reason is that even then we were in the era of hype.  The goal of most marketing is to sell engagement by selling editorial mentions in publications.  PR sells sales calls; sales calls sell products.  The problem is that if the PR is about some enormous, even-tectonic, shift in technology direction, the selling cycle could be long indeed.  Vendors wanted instant gratification; something to fill into the next quarter.  That offers an incentive to sell tests and trials and avoid the complex stuff, which in Brocade’s case diluted the whole strategic story.

The second, technical, reason is that most vendors didn’t have any idea what a good deal would look like to their customers.  Vendors couldn’t tell operators how their current capex was distributed, so even if they truly understood how NFV (or SDN) would impact some specific devices, they couldn’t project the impact on the bottom line.  I also had operator after operator complaining to me that vendors were telling them how much opex they could save, when that same vendor had no idea what their current opex was or how it was distributed!  In any event, you can’t plot out future operations costs if you don’t have a complete model of your new operations processes associated with a service lifecycle.

The effect of all of this was to create a climate of “claim-jumping”, not to find gold but to find a set of “benefits” that hadn’t yet been discredited.  The further things went afield from the simple notion of a hosted router instance, the harder it was to collect valid information on what the total cost of ownership might be, because the whole ecosystem was now changing.

Vyatta needed to be positioned as a cloud router, and it has two possible applications.  First, it’s a multi-tenant device like the real router.  You don’t instantiate it with a service order; it has the same relation to services as physical routers do—they share it.  Second, it’s a per-tenant router because we create service partitions below the router level, with virtual wires created by a combination of agile optics and SDN.  Now we don’t need massive multi-tenant routers because every tenant has their own router instances.  In the first mission, it has nothing to do with NFV.  In the second mission, it depends on infrastructure transformation to allow you to virtualize Level 3, and even then, it’s really still a cloud router and not a traditional NFV virtual function.  Because Brocade never had a story of its own, having lost the PR and influence wars, they were caught in the shifting tide of NFV, and Vyatta didn’t (and doesn’t) belong there.

This all may answer a question asked by SDxCentral, which is “What If a Service Provider Snagged Brocade’s Virtual Router?”  They’d probably have to make it open-source rather than “own” it, but even if they managed to dodge the anti-trust-and-collusion issues, would a service provider have the answers to the questions that Brocade couldn’t answer?  It gets back to the problem of creating a strategic model for the network of the future.  Operators are used to building networks from products and not to creating models on their own.  Add to this the fact that they can’t really collect in an operators-only group to work out the plans (back to anti-trust and collusion), and you see the problem.

Vyatta is a great virtual router, perhaps the best ever developed.  That doesn’t mean that it’s useful, or more important transformational, if it’s not built into that universal strategic model of the future network, the model we don’t have yet.  And that’s why Vyatta was left at the church after the Brocade break-up.  And why it may languish now.

There is a transformational model available for Vyatta; several, in fact.  I’ve noted before that if you framed networks on a series of agile electro-optical virtual wires with resilience and tenant segmentation, you could transform networking into islands of separate IP behavior, each of which would be well within the capabilities of a hosted router instance.  Operators aren’t going to drive this kind of transformation, only vendors can.  Perhaps, only optical vendors.

You don’t need the virtual-router and virtual-wire mission to validate the carrier cloud.  In fact, my models don’t suggest that it would add materially to the number of data centers operators deployed.  You do need that Vyatta-like mission to totally transform networks and services, though, and if you’re a vendor you need to understand that a new network model will inevitably emerge.  Eventually, Vyatta will be valuable, and somebody might be smart enough now to snap it up, and wait.