The God Box Isn't Dead
The funny thing about perfection is that it's impossible to measure. It's a bit like pornography, at least in the judicial sense: difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. In other words, perfection – like beauty and, nowadays, truth – is a subjective phenomenon.
A perfect day for me, by way of example, starts with finding little or no evidence of my gradually thinning scalp in the bathroom sink. I also feel like I've hit the lottery if I can accumulate 12 continuous minutes of reading time without interruption from one of my kids before I fall asleep in front of the TV.
In short, I'm a simple man. It doesn't take defiance of the laws of physics or nature to make me happy.
Service providers, I'm afraid, are a bit more demanding. Their vision of perfection can be summed up in a single phrase: more services at less cost. Here's another way to look at it: If service providers stumbled across a genie-confining lantern in the desert, their second wish would be for the ability to roll out new services so compelling as to attract the loyalties of millions of customers. Their third would be the ability to deliver on wish #2 with a network that costs considerably less to operate than the one they currently own. (Their first wish, of course, would be for Skype, Google, Yahoo, and all other over-the-top service providers to disappear.)
New service creation and reduced operating expenses have been the twin pursuits of service providers for, oh, let's say the past century. The problem is that these two influential forces are more often than not in opposition. Delivering new services or improving service delivery, almost by definition, requires an investment in new equipment, which in turn increases operating expenses. This is why, every couple of years or so, an ambitious equipment maker (or group thereof) emerges out of the telecom landscape with a device that purports to grant wishes 2 and 3 in one fell swoop.
The generic term for infrastructure gear of this ilk is "multifunction device." The more colorful (and often pejorative) moniker applied to such equipment is "God box." You don't have to be an etymologist to understand the analogy: Just as a deity is able to do many things at the same time – smite pharaohs, make sure no two snowflakes are alike, and oversee the outcome of sporting events – multifunction devices can cram a network full of functionality into a single system.
The latest earthly manifestation of the God box is occurring at the access edge of the service provider network. Several vendors are promoting a single system as a repository for multiple functions associated with session management (authentication, encryption, denial-of-service attack prevention, policy enforcement, etc.). While that roster of responsibilities seems daunting enough, these vendors are actually going a step further and fortifying these devices with the ability to terminate sessions coming from multiple types of access network (cellular, WiFi, WiMax, pico/femtocells, DSL, cable) and manage mobility as subscribers wander between these networks. This additional functionality has prompted at least one maker of specialized security systems to coin the semi-nonsensical phrase "super God box."
There is a fairly sound logical justification for the existence of these so-called convergence gateways. The fixed/mobile convergence movement is pushing service providers toward a subscriber-centric service delivery model characterized by the ability to deliver services to any device, across any network boundary, seamlessly. Convergence gateway vendors are rightly anticipating that to reach this goal, carriers will need to continue adding support for multiple access networks, while at the same time rendering the services they deliver access-agnostic. That's where the convergence gateway comes in: The only way to execute the acrobatics of separating session management from specific access technologies (say convergence gateway vendors) is to install a device at the edge of the network that "speaks" all access languages and serves as a single control point for applying security, enforcing policy, and managing mobility.
Makers of convergence gateways, which naturally resist the "God box" label, offer two primary arguments to justify their support of these multifunction devices:
- The first is that convergence gateways do more than assemble edge services in a single location in the name of consolidation or network simplicity. Rather, they argue that service providers will only be able to offer portability of real-time and near-real-time traffic across network and device boundaries if all of the functions needed to pull that feat off are located on the same system. The simple function of transferring an IPTV stream from a high-definition TV to a mobile handheld device, for example, requires coordination across all layers of the network. Assigning the execution and the coordination of that task to multiple pieces of equipment strewn across the network would not be as efficient as having a single control point at the network edge, convergence gateway makers contend.
- The second is basically a rejection of the "God box" classification. At least one vendor in this space downplays the complexity of its product. It argues that most of the support for encryption, authentication, mobility management, and routing are based on long-standing and well-defined protocols and interfaces that, in many cases, can be purchased off the shelf. Company officials go on to say that the designers of its convergence gateway really focused on only one function – in this case, security – to differentiate its product. In other words, although the box may do a dozen things, the manufacturer is really only expending engineering expertise on one or two.
The con side of the God box debate has been fairly well documented over the past few years, so I'll only briefly rehash it here. One general argument is the Stereo Analogy – i.e., that a sound system is only as good as its weakest component. Another standard retort might be termed the Star Wars Special Edition Syndrome – i.e., just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
To my mind, however, the strongest anti-God-box argument is that in an all-IP world, functionality location is more of a logical issue than a physical one. Intensive tasks should be no more difficult to carry out if the functions involved are distributed across several pieces of equipment than if they are condensed on a single box.
While it's true that past efforts to deliver multifunction gear – the name Tachion springs to mind – have not met with much success, it's no exaggeration to say that the telecom industry is changing rapidly. Staid carriers such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) are in the midst of radical transformations at nearly every level of their business – infrastructure, services, operations, etc. Who's to say for sure that, in this brave new networking world, there isn't a place for a God box?
In the end, like perfection, the truth and beauty of the God box lies in the eyes of the beholder.
– Joe McGarvey, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading