Please Find Alternate Route

NFV & SDN: “You Can Go Your Own Way”?

Please Find Alternate RouteSDN is maturing: many network vendors now offer variations on a theme of OpenFlow or other SDN-based devices.  However, the latest launches from Cisco via its Insieme group show how the market may well evolve — with no big surprises.

Insieme is nominally a SDN-compliant architecture, with an interoperability to OpenStack cloud platforms.  However, as is Cisco’s wont, it only provides its best capabilities in a Cisco-only environment, as the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) is dependent on there being specific Nexus switches in place.  And Cisco isn’t the only one to be causing problems — more on this later. So — SDN starts to get a bit dirty, with only parts of the promised abstraction of the control layer being possible in a heterogeneous environment.

As SDN and OpenFlow mature and hit some problems, service providers have come up with a different group to try and meet its own problems.  Network Function Virtualization (NFV) tries to create a standardized manner of dealing with network functions within a service provider’s environment, aimed at attempting to control the tail-chasing that they have to do in trying to keep up with the continuous changes from the technical and vendor markets.

From the original NFV whitepaper, we can see what the service providers are trying to do:

Network Functions Virtualisation aims to address these problems (ranging from acquisition of skills, increasing heterogeneity of platform, need to find space and power for new equipment, the capital investment required and the speed to end-of-life of hardware appliances) by leveraging standard IT virtualisation technology to consolidate many network equipment types onto industry standard high volume servers, switches and storage, which could be located in Datacentres, Network Nodes and in the end user premises. We believe Network Functions Virtualisation is applicable to any data plane packet processing and control plane function in fixed and mobile network infrastructures.

This sounds an admirable and suitable aim — but the mention of data and control planes seems to place this well in the face of SDN.  Are we seeing a battle to the death between one standard founded in academia and pushed by the vendors (SDN) and one founded and championed by those having to deal with all the problems at the coal face (NFV)?

Probably not.  NFV is aimed at dealing with specific cases, and is really looking at how a service provider can collapse certain data functions down into a more standardized, flexible, and longer-lived environment.  SDN is looking at layering on top of this a more complex and rich set of data functions aimed at providing applications and users a better overall data experience.

The two can — and should — work together in harmony to each other’s benefit.  However, there will be an ongoing need to ensure that there is not a bifurcation of aim, that there remain adequate touch points between each approach, and that the standards put in place by each group work well with each other.

This then brings us back to the original part of the piece: although bifurcation of SDN/NFV would be bad enough, a forking of SDN by the vendors would be worse. Cisco’s and other vendor’s oft-trodden path of providing nominal support for a standard — but in such a way that tries to tie people to their own kit — is not good for SDN, nor for the end user.  Other vendors making similar noises with their own SDN projects and software, such as Juniper with Contrail, Alcatel-Lucent with Nuage, and VMware with Nicira, may have better intentions and a more open approach, but the overall messaging does mean that we are entering a fairly typical vendor market, where a good idea is becoming bogged down in efforts to ensure that no vendor has to cannibalize its existing approach too much.

In actuality, as organizations are becoming more aware of the need for data agnosticism and how the world of hybrid cloud is, by its very nature, one of heterogeneity, this could rebound (and looks like it already is rebounding) on some of these vendors.  With Cisco in particular, its outlook for the future, presented by CEO John Chambers, is poor.  Predicting a revenue drop of between 8% and 10% in this quarter, based on year-on-year figures, it sees emerging markets showing a marked collapse in orders.  With many of these markets being a prime target for approaches such as SDN and NFV, due to many projects being green field, or full replacements of old kit ill-suited to new markets, it looks like Cisco is being bypassed in favor of those who can offer a more standardized approach to a heterogeneous environment.

Alongside APIC, Cisco also has its Open Network Environment (ONE) platform, and is heavily involved in the OpenDaylight project with the Linux Foundation, to which it has donated part of its ONE code.  If it is going to be an ongoing force in the new network markets, it will need to provide a stronger message in both the completely open SDN and NFV markets.

It is to be hoped that the vendors do not strangle this market before it has really taken off.  SDN and NFV need to work together: the vendors need to create this new network market and then fight over who does what best in a heterogeneous environment.  Only through this will the end user be the winner.

Image credit: Martin Addison (