Yesterday, in the wake of earnings calls from both Cisco and IBM, I blogged that IBM was at least working to build fundamental demand for its stuff by engaging with Apple to enhance mobile productivity for enterprises. I then commented that the challenge would be in converting this kind of relationship into some structured “middleware” that could then be leveraged across multiple business applications. My closing point was that almost half of the total feature value of new middleware was up for grabs, something that could reside in the network or in IT. It’s time to dig into that point a bit more.
If you look at normal application deployment, you see what’s totally an IT process. Even multiple-component applications are normally deployed inside a static data center network configuration, and so it’s possible to frame networking and IT as separate business-support tasks, cooperating and interdependent but still separate. While most companies unite IT and networking under a CIO, most still have a network head and an IT head.
The cloud, SDN, and NFV potentially change this dynamic. OpenStack has an API set (Nova) to deploy compute instances and another (Neutron) to connect them. At least some of the SDN models propose to move network functionality into central servers, and NFV is all about hosting network features. The broad topic of “network-as-a-service” or NaaS reflects the goal of businesses to make networks respond directly to application and user needs, making them in a true sense subservient to IT. If you apply virtual switches and components and overlay technology (like VMware) then you can create a world where applications grab all the glory in an overlay component and networking is all about plumbing.
The question, of course, is how NaaS is provided. NaaS is like any other kind of networking—you have to be able to model what you want, deploy it, and manage it. Clearly you can’t manage virtual resources alone; real bits get pushed by underlying switches even in the VMware model. Furthermore, Nova could in theory make “hosting as a service” and be as disruptive to the current data center model as Neutron and NaaS would be to networking. The point is that there’s a big functional chunk around this “as-a-service” stuff.
And it’s up for grabs. Virtually no network operators and few enterprises believe that the new model of the cloud is mature and well-understood. If you focus on the subset of enterprises who are looking for those compelling new productivity benefits—the ones that could drive new tech spending—then no statistically significant portion of the base believes they’re ready to deploy this new model.
The closest we’re approaching reality in our tech evolutions to date is with the cloud and its relationship with NFV. Cloud computing for enterprises has been mostly about server consolidation; users tend to deploy fairly static application models to the cloud. While this is helpful to a point, most enterprises agree that point-of-activity empowerment through the marriage of mobility of devices and agility of information is the best hope for new benefit drivers. This kind of stuff is far more dynamic, which is where NFV could come in.
Service features can also be static, as most of the “service chaining” proofs of concept and hype demonstrate. A company who buys a VPN is likely to need a pretty stable set of connection adjunct tools—firewall, NAT, DHCP, DNS—and even if they buy some incremental service they’re likely to keep it for a macro time once they decide. Thus, a lot of the NFV stuff isn’t really much different from server consolidation; it’s a low apple. The question is whether you can make something dynamic deployable and manageable. The Siri-like example I’ve used, and the question “What’s that?” illustrate information dynamism, and you could apply the question to a worker in front of a pipe manifold or electrical panel or to a consumer walking down a commercial boulevard.
My point on all of this is that the essential element in agile cloud or NFV deployment is highly effective management/orchestration, or MANO. IBM’s answer to MANO in the cloud is its “SmartCloud Orchestrator”, which is as far as I know the only commercial MANO tool that’s based on the TOSCA standard that I think is the best framework for orchestrating the cloud, SDN, and NFV. Some inside IBM tell me that they’re looking at a “Service Orchestrator” application of this tool for NFV and that it’s also possible that NFV and the cloud will both be subsumed into a single product, likely to remain with its current name.
So here’s IBM, explicitly targeting productivity enhancement and having the best current core tool for agile-component MANO. You see why I say that Cisco has to get on the ball. It’s far from certain that IBM actually plans to broaden SmartCloud Orchestrator to target the full SDN/NFV/cloud universe, or that they could be successful if they did. After all, most of you reading this have probably never heard of the product.
Cisco’s ACI is an SDN strategy that says that the current network can be made agile through the addition of APIs that allow applications to manipulate services more effectively and create them from infrastructure. It’s a more logical approach for most enterprises and even operators because it protects a rather large asset base, but the VMware approach and in particular the partnership with Arista demonstrates there’s another way. All you have to do is build an overlay network and couple it downward to cheaper boxes. You get agility immediately, and as you age out your current technology you can replace it with plumbing. If you connect IBM’s SmartCloud approach to this, you get something that could answer a lot of buyer questions in the cloud, SDN, and NFV.
The big bugaboo for IBM here, and for VMware and Arista and Cisco and everyone else, is the management part. We still, as an industry, don’t have a validated model for managing transient virtual assets and the transient services or applications created from them. We are thus asking everyone to dumb down to best efforts at the very moment we’re asking workers to rely on point-of-activity empowerment to make them more productive.
This makes management the boundary point that IT and networking have to vie to reach. For IBM, coming from the potential strong base of productivity apps designed for tablet/cloud and with the best MANO offering available from a big player, success could be little more than delivering what’s promised. For Cisco, it’s a matter of creating a complete solution for agile applications and resources that’s credible, not just Chicken-Little-the-Sky-is-Falling PR about how video traffic is destined to swamp networks if everyone doesn’t invest in more bits. And of course, somebody else might step up. We’re in the early stages of the future here and there’s plenty of maneuvering room.