Network functions virtualization (NFV) would replace a variety of proprietary hardware appliances, some of which enjoy fat margins, with software running on general-purpose x86 servers. But Cisco Systems Inc. says the move to NFV actually will enable it to gain more business.
In an hour-long conference with telecom analysts Tuesday, Cisco put forth the case that it's primed for NFV and that the concept blends with its Unified Computing System (UCS), which supplies servers and storage to the data center.
Customers are "getting this function from someone else," said Kelly Ahuja, senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco's Mobility Business Group. Eventually, they'll be able to get it from Cisco. "We can get more market share out of it," Ahuja said. Virtualization "allows us to go into new spaces."
He didn't, however, address the perception that average selling prices will likely fall as a range of hardware products get transformed into software.
Among the kinds of functions Ahuja expects to see virtualized are application load balancing, session border control, network address translation, deep packet inspection, firewall, and even some routing. These control-related and "high-touch" functions, Ahuja noted, lend themselves to running on general-purpose CPUs.
Chip vendor Netronome made a similar point last week at the Linley GroupCarrier Conference, noting that Layer 4 through 7 functions were the first likely targets for NFV. (See Chip Vendors Chase NFV.)
Of course, when it comes to high-bandwidth routing and switching functions, Cisco believes ASICs and network processors will always be needed. There, virtualization would only increase cost and complexity, Ahuja claimed.
Not everybody agrees; in fact, the first half of 2013 has seen a lot of support for the idea of loading the data center with generic Ethernet switches. The Open Compute Project is adding its open-source power to the fray, and just Wednesday, startup Cumulus Networks announced a network operating system that could likewise power generic switches. (See Open Compute Project Takes On Networking and Cumulus Intros Network OS.)
Service chains What operators like about virtualization, Ahuja said, are the significant gains it promises in agility and in cost savings. Once a broad swatch of functions is turned into software running on commodity hardware, the provisioning and orchestration of service chains can be automated and controlled by software policies.
In the past, customers have had to stitch together these chains themselves, which required working with a variety of proprietary interfaces. Soon, Ahuja said, open interfaces -- such as those being hammered out by the OpenDaylight project, of which Cisco is a fan (though not everybody else is) -- will make all this much easier.
Particular candidates for virtualization include some of Cisco's recent acquisitions, Ahuja said. Intucell Inc., for instance, has technology that enables radio cells to optimize themselves automatically, based on a steady collection and analysis of live performance data. ThinkSmart Technologies does something similar for Wi-Fi, and Ubiquisys Ltd. supplies easily-deployed femtocell gear.
In the WAN domain, Cariden Technologies Inc. offers capacity planning and management tools, and in the core, Cisco bought Broadhop Inc. and Starent Networks.
With NFV, many if not all of these functions could reside in the data center and become more automated and programmable, Ahuja said. For now, though, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV group is still in its early stages and Cisco's NFV technology is only in lab trials.
— John Verity, contributing editor, special to Light Reading