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CloudNFV: Dell's Lost Opportunity?

Mitch Wagner
10/23/2015
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Remember CloudNFV? The 2013 NFV group was ahead of its time -- maybe too far ahead. It was an ambitious initiative to run virtual network functions in the cloud that got off to a promising beginning, got handed off to Dell leadership, and then withered away.

CloudNFV was an industry group founded in 2013. While NFV has made huge strides since then, CloudNFV's mandates look enormously ambitious, even today. As the name implies, CloudNFV's mission was to focus immediately on running NFV in the cloud, skipping the intermediate step of running NFV software virtualized on servers.

Leading advocates today espouse the same vision for "cloudifying" NFV that CloudNFV advocated two years ago. But today's advocates see cloudification as an end-state, achieved through hard work by leading-edge comms companies partnering with vendors. CloudNFV wanted to jump through the beginning stages and go straight to the end. And they had that vision two years ago -- not that long ago by real-world standards, but ancient history in the fast-moving world of NFV.

Headed up by Tom Nolle, veteran industry consultant and president and CEO of CIMI Corp., CloudNFV launched in July 2013, with six vendors in the group. The first project was a cloud-based implementation of the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) for supporting converged services and enabling network functions to be broke into reusable modular segments. (See New Group Ties NFV to the Cloud.)

By November of that year, Nolle told my colleague Carol Wilson that the CloudNFV software would be productized and appearing in network operator labs by 2014. The group demonstrated its cloud-based IMS implementation in October. (See CloudNFV Moves Quickly to Product Stage.)

The ETSI/NFV ISG approved CloudNFV's work as its first proof-of-concept application in December 2013, with service provider sponsors Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF) and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) Vendor sponsors were 6WIND , Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL), EnterpriseWeb LLC , Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX), Metaswitch Networks , Overture Networks Inc. , Qosmos and Aeroflex Inc. (Nasdaq: ARXX). It completed last year. (See NFV Group Kickstarts Proof-of-Concept Work.)

A few months later, Dell had taken over leadership of CloudNFV, with that company's Wenjing Chu, distinguished engineer and CTO in mobility and net virtualization, replacing Nolle. Chu told Light Reading that CloudNFV was part of a "pan-Dell" approach to virtualization that would span several years, with a "big announcement coming out very soon about a corporate-wide strategy." (See Dell Has Big NFV Plans.)

But since then, we haven't heard anything about CloudNFV.

"CloudNFV never really ignited after I left the project," Nolle tells Light Reading this week. "Part of that, I think, was due to Dell's desire to focus on selling infrastructure rather than on building a total solution. I retained the trademark and website because I couldn't be sure that Dell would continue the project as it was, and while others registered similar domains there was never any activity. I promised to link to any project website if a URL was provided to me, but none was."

Nolle says he worked on CloudNFV for free at first, but there was no interest from Dell and other companies "to pick up and pay when the free stuff ran out."

From Dell's perspective, CloudNFV ran its course. As Nolle says, Dell is focused on selling infrastructure -- servers, storage and networking -- to comms companies, letting partners, including VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW), Overture and others, sell the NFV software itself. CloudNFV work taught Dell how to tune its equipment to work with NFV software from its partners, Jeff Baher, senior director, NFV strategy and marketing, tells Light Reading this week. "Anyone that's going to provide a common platform needs to understand the hardware and software and anything that runs on top of that," Baher says.

Sources in Silicon Valley tell us CloudNFV was part of a Dell experiment to develop its own NFV software stack. But Dell decided not to go that route, focusing instead on selling servers, storage and networking, and working with other companies on the NFV software.

And that's where the lost opportunity comes in. Or possible lost opportunity. Dell could have transformed itself from an infrastructure provider to selling full solutions. But it decided not to go that route, focusing instead on its core infrastructure competency rather than risk alienating partners by competing with them on software. The recent announced intent to acquire EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) is an extension of that strategy -- EMC will beef up Dell's infrastructure offerings, while VMware, which has a strong NFV software line, will operate as an independent satellite company, as it has under EMC ownership. (See Dell-EMC-VMware Merger Could Push Comms to Kids' Table and Dell Buys EMC for $67B in Biggest Tech Deal Ever.)

Which isn't to say that Dell has abandoned NFV. We'll talk more about that soon.


Find out more about network functions virtualization on Light Reading's NFV channel.


NFV leaders are still pursuing the vision articulated by CloudNFV. For example, HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ), Heavy Reading analyst Roz Roseboro and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) distinguished engineer Margaret Chiosi have in recent conversations with Light Reading articulated a multi-stage process toward achieving NFV's full potential:

  • Separating the software layer from the hardware layer, while still using a single-vendor solution for both.
  • Virtualizing NFV software to run on a commodity appliance.
  • Running NFV in the cloud, wherever it most makes sense from a technology and business perspective.
  • Breaking up NFV from monolithic software into microservices that run dispersed over the network for optimal usefulness and performance.

See:

Cloudifying NFV is an ambitious goal even today, and was, apparently, too ambitious back in the misty, prehistoric era of 2013. An aggressive, Dell-led CloudNFV is one of the intriguing might-have-beens of the comms industry. Instead, it's barely a footnote.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to wagner@lightreading.com.

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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/24/2015 | 3:06:52 PM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
@Steve: At least they'll be competitive with HP.  。゚(TヮT)゚。
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/24/2015 | 3:05:05 PM
Timing
My dad has a saying: "There are no bad ideas--just bad timing."  This is one of those examples, and it's unfortunate how it works out sometimes.

Reminds me of NCs -- "network computers."  Remember those?  In the '90s, people thought they were going to be huge, and they flopped.

Now, we have essentially the same thing in ChromeBooks.
TomNolle
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TomNolle,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/24/2015 | 8:39:27 AM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
@DHagar: Thanks; CloudNFV was a fascinating project with a lot of good people involved. I think Dell is probably already sorry about the decisions they've made with NFV, but they'll probably get a bit more so! @Mike688: I agree; the EMC deal changes the parameters for them because they now need to promote VMware as a platform.  Before that, all they had to do was to sell servers to any NFV-committed operator.  If you want to push a platform overall, you need to be able to drive the business case.  @Steve:  Interesting about your conversation a year ago.  My own experience was that Dell was very engaged in "total NFV" in late 2013 but then pulled back from that position in December 2013 or January 2014.  I wonder if they had another run at a full solution after that?  You're absolutely right about the point that if you take out the critical MANO elements that can drive a business case, what's left in NFV is a commodity market.  That was the operators' goal from the first, of course.
Steve Saunders
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Steve Saunders,
User Rank: Blogger
10/23/2015 | 10:55:57 PM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
Nice article Mitch. In conversations with Dell last year they were definitely aiming to sell NFV themselves. Something went wrong (a case of "product doesn't work" perhaps?) I see this as a huge missed opportunity for them. Now they're focused on selling hardware? Well guess what, that market is called white box and there's about 100+ companies that will be in their space with new, innovative and cheap solutions. Steve
DHagar
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DHagar,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/23/2015 | 7:34:21 PM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
MikeP688, you may be right.  The question will be if their timing is right and in chasing the short-term fix are they limiting their future?  (The $64,000 ?)

 
MikeP688
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MikeP688,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/23/2015 | 7:19:03 PM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
Dell is trying to survive--that's why it made the move that it did.  Some of the more fascinating intiatives are falling by the wayside.     That's the rationale to me more than anything else.
DHagar
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DHagar,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/23/2015 | 6:38:47 PM
Re: And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
TomNolle, kudos to you for organizing the CloudNFV - a valuable component to the developing market. 

I believe that Dell will be sorry they chose the path they did and they will regret not becoming a total solution - which I view as more wealth creation than just sales.  So that makes me wonder if their acquisition could be limited as well by their limited vision in NFV and developing markets?
TomNolle
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TomNolle,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/23/2015 | 11:07:30 AM
And NFV Now Matters More to Dell
Nice piece, Mitch, and a good question at this point.  Dell, by acquiring VMware, has to insure that it creates a position for VMware in both SDN and NFV when the open-source and standards processes are dominated by OpenStack and OpenDaylight.  It's going to be hard for them to do that without a complete solution that can build a complete NFV business case.
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