Are We Seeing Signs of “Realthink” in Networking?

Are we seeing signs of sanity in networking?  Just the other day, Light Reading did a piece on service lifecycle automation.  Yesterday they did one on edge computing.  I’ve been arguing (and blogging) on both topics for quite a while, so it’s no surprise that I think the coverage represents a sane shift.  I doubt that I’m the driver, though.  What is?  I think there are some common forces at work, but also that both the pieces reflect some issues specific to the markets they describe.

The two common factors behind the sanity shift I’m describing are reality in general and the value of a business case in particular.  Our industry is made up of technology vendors, whose advertising drives industry news, analyst views, and so forth.  The fact is that the vendors have always recognized the value of a good technology fable in driving engagement.  You don’t sell products through editorial mentions, after all.  You sell website visits, which sells sales calls, which sell products.  However, engagement only helps drive sales if that last step is taken.  The current set of fables hasn’t done that for the market overall, and that’s what I think is changing the message now.

Most fads in tech are easy to write about and interesting to read about.  Contrast the following.  First, little Dutch boy does well in secondary schools, enters a university to get an engineering degree, learns hydrodynamics and materials, and plans a system of dikes and locks to protect his home.  Second, little Dutch boy sticks his finger in a hole in a dike and saves his home.  Which story do we like, do we hear?  However appealing the second might be, though, it won’t actually accomplish much.  So, reality drives us eventually to the first.

Another attribute of tech fads is that they presume technology is good for technology’s sake.  It’s new, it’s modern, it’s justified.  For a lot of the history of computing and networking, that was true, because we had a period when requirements changed quickly and products had to follow suit.  You could presume that the latest thing did that following-suit better than older ones did.  But we’re not in that period now; most technologies have significant adoption costs and risks, and require significant benefits.  They need a business case, and so inevitably sellers will confront that need.

Let’s look at “automation”, which means “service lifecycle management automation” or the process of making the whole process of service creation—from architect’s or marketeer’s pipe dream to sale and sustaining—a machine-driven activity.  Automation is the alternative to “manualization” or human-action dependence.  You need to automate something if it’s too difficult to do manually, or too expensive.

SDN and NFV were, from the instant of their conception, wholly dependent on automation.  SDN says that a central process controls the forwarding of packets now done through adaptive topology discovery.  How does this central process know about conditions?  Analytics, presumably, operating on collected data.  How do changes in forwarding for a thousand switches get converged on a stable set of routes?  Same thing.  How do you then implement the result of all this analyzing?  Not by humans batting on keys, for sure.

NFV has this problem, and more.  We used to have this physical network function (PNF), and it was a box.  All its features and control elements were inside.  You prepped it by plugging it in and parameterizing it.  Now we’re going to take this PNF and turn it into a chain of hosted virtual network functions (VNFs), each requiring a server deployment and configuration individually, each having to be connected in the chain, and each then having to be managed separately but also collectively.  Is this simplification?  Hardly; VNFs are a lot more complicated than PNFs.  So it follows that VNFs needed operational simplification or they could never pay off.  So it follows we should have had service automation in NFV from Day One.

Then there’s edge computing.  I vividly recall a conversation I had with a US telco executive in 2013, before anyone had really even heard of the concept of edge computing and when NFV was just a gleam in a CTO’s eye.  I asked where he expected to have data centers, and the response was “Everywhere we have real estate!”  That, of course, is what AT&T was saying in the LR article, and what they said on their latest earnings call.

You cannot control real-time processes with computing facilities half-a-continent or more away.  In fact, industrial automation has long shown that you have to be able to control machines with a very short control loop, a few milliseconds or even less.  There is simply no way to do that with any modern network technology, using distant resources.

At 60 mph, a self-drive car travels 88 feet in a second or a bit more than an inch a millisecond.  The speed of a packet in fiber, assuming no handling, is a hundred miles per millisecond, so the round trip would be 50 miles per millisecond.  A thousand miles is ten milliseconds, enough for our car to move a foot.  Add on packet processing and you see the problem, and you’ve not even added the process that’s handling the controlling itself.  So when something comes up like IoT, the question should not be “how do we connect stuff?” but “how do we shorten the control loop?”.

If that’s not enough proof for you, consider that all the big cloud computing players have strategies that are aimed at harnessing local processing to augment the cloud in order to handle events.  Here’s Amazon, who most agree is a pretty savvy company.  They don’t have any credentials in premises computing whatsoever.  In fact, their competitor Microsoft has far better positioning there.  So, what do they do?  Invent Greengrass to shift event loads to the premises where necessary.  For that to be smart, you have to believe it’s essential.

There is absolutely no point to talking about connecting the IoT or about process control, or even about some personalized communications services, if you can’t host the processes that do the work near the point of activity.  There never has been a point.  Thus, it was dumb to think that edge computing wasn’t the essential ingredient in all of this stuff.  Arguably even SDN and NFV need it.

Revolutionary change is hard, complicated, and expensive.  You can trivialize it in a sales pitch or in a 350-word article, but you can’t implement it that way.  We just spent four years promoting a vision of SDN and NFV that fell far short of both expectations and potential, in large part because we never put the full picture before the marketplace.  Sellers wanted buyers to simply adopt and ask questions later, and that didn’t happen.  We’re facing a similar problem with 5G and IoT.

Media recognition of reality is a good sign, because media views are driven by advertising, which means vendors.  Vendors are at the heart of the issue here.  Everyone wants a quick sale that gives them their numbers in the next quarter.  That’s what they wanted in 2013, the time when the current slow decline in revenues for nearly all vendors started.  They didn’t get it then, nor will they get it now.  A quick sale in today’s market is a sale by Huawei.  Everyone else is going to have to do an inspirational, transformational, sale.  Facing the truth early on might be a good way to start it, and perhaps that’s about to happen.