We’ve not had much in the way of explicit vendor positioning for Network Functions Virtualization, despite the fact that my model says it will likely have more of an impact on the network equipment market over time than SDN will. Server network middleware optimizer 6WIND had the first positioning of NFV I’ve seen, and Ericsson featured NFV prominently in their pre-MWC briefing. Yesterday Overture joined the fray, and they might be onto something.
The overture concept is called Ensemble Open Service Architecture or Ensemble OSA for short. What’s interesting about it is that it’s not a system/software strategy but a metro strategy, and that’s critical in my view because the focus of NFV in the future will clearly be the metro area. What’s just a titch disappointing is that Overture is taking what in my view is too retrospective and conservative a view of the opportunity, and shooting short of the mark in today’s market can be fatal.
There are three layers to Ensemble OSA (three being the magic number, apparently, for most presentations including my own!). The top layer is for applications, the middle for orchestration and control, and the bottom for resources. One of the potentially valuable insights Overture adds to the picture is the placement of virtual functions and devices in the resource layer, which makes it possible to visualize that layer as an object model that’s organized by the middle layer and consumed by the top. That’s the structure I think is most appropriate for any service-layer functionality for the network of the future, including both SDN and NFV.
The diagram Overture draws for the metro of the future is very much like my metro cloud diagram; functionality is pushed out to the very edge—the central offices—and hosted on servers that are thus highly distributed. This creates a metro cloud network that’s drawn upon for the features that services need, and each feature can in theory be hosted near where it’s actually used or replicated as needed for performance reasons. Overture says that the architecture is edge-driven, meaning that edge devices couple functionality back to the network, and that also seems appropriate as a model. The first problem in the details is that how this works isn’t explained; how are services coupled to the data plane. Is the coupling an operations/management-level link or is it simply a connection? How much substance is here is a determinant for the value. The second problem is the lack of detail on how functionality is orchestrated, That makes it impossible to tell whether Overture OSA is targeted only at carrier Ethernet customers (a difficult position to sustain given the dominance of consumer and mobile broadband) or at a larger base.
This leaves me in a bit of a quandary because absent detail it’s hard to know whether there’s anything here but slideware. Since Overture said they started development of Ensemble OSA in 2012 it’s clearly not an enormous software project; there wasn’t time. But I’ve said before that you could create something that would support SDN, NFV, and the service layer of NGN using open-source tools properly integrated, so the project timeline and lack of detail may be reflective of reuse of existing components and flexibility in their use, respectively. If that’s the case they should have been specific. The architecture seems good; it’s perhaps the only metro-NFV presentation yet made. Is there anything behind it? I can’t say.
What’s most disappointing is the press release focus on operations issues and not on service creation. Even the NFV examples of new services are “new” in the sense that the implementation of the feature by a hosted component is “new” but the feature itself isn’t. Overture could take a significant step forward with Ensemble OSA, a step that would connect the architecture with mobile and content in the near term, and with pretty much everything that’s new and at a higher level than the data plane in the long term. But though CDNs and mobile infrastructure elements are NFV targets, they’re not cited in the Overture material, and nothing’s said about creating virtual functions that represent new things and not transplanted appliance features or operations tools. To me, this diminishes the excitement of the announcement, and also the potential scope of benefits. Finally, it makes me wonder whether there’s anything under the diagrams. Without true metro cloud applications, this could be little more than carrier Ethernet with some PR hooks added.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. There is nothing in services that is truly valuable and is not going to end up distributed to the metro level. Content is the clearest example of that; CDNs host everything someone cares enough about to pay for. So what we’re going to see in the future is a transformation of “the Internet” into “Cloudnet”, which is a metro infrastructure that hosts valuable stuff locally so that its traffic travels no more than about 40 miles to the users. Overture’s mission, and the mission of everyone who claims credentials in the SDN, NFV, or cloud computing space, is to build the metro infrastructure that makes this happen. That’s what they have to go after, and in detail sufficient to validate their claim of support. Maybe eventually they will but they didn’t do it with this announcement.
It’s good, maybe even great, that Overture seems to be embracing the metro-cloud architecture at the positioning level. It would be better if they matched their details to their story, laid out what their specific capabilities were. If you’re reading this, Overture, send me another deck with this detail included! It would also have been better to have shouted the metro-cloud position to the rooftops as a means of indoctrinating the media and the market, but you don’t get mulligans in positioning so it’s too late for that. Most of all I’d like to see them move away from the operations-defensive position. If making networks cheaper year after year is the only goal, then operators should consider getting out of the network business. You need top-line growth, ARPU growth, to sustain an industry.