Alcatel-Lucent became the latest IP platform vendor to unveil a virtual router Wednesday, tapping into the NFV zeitgeist for offering virtual alternatives to existing physical systems.
Earlier this month, Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) unveiled the virtual version of its MX Series 3D Universal Edge Routing platform, while Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has been talking up its virtual router offer for more than two years. (See Juniper Launches Virtual Routers, DevOps Capabilities and Cisco's Software Router Targets the Cloud.)
These are the two companies that Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) believes it needs to outmuscle and outmaneuver on the virtual starting grid -- though Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) is also in the game -- and as you'd expect, the vendor is making all the right noises about capabilities, focus, market interest, openness and competitive edge. (See Telefónica Proves Brocade Router Performs for NFV.)
Capabilities and competitive edge
The product is called the Virtualized Service Router (VSR), and is, as its name suggests, a virtual version of the vendor's popular service router platform. The company claims the VSR Provider Edge router is capable of 320Gbit/s half duplex (unidirectional throughput) in a single x86 server, runs the same operating system as its hardware cousins and can be managed by AlcaLu's 5620 Service Aware Manager (SAM) -- making it, in theory, relatively straightforward to deploy alongside existing routers.
From a competitive standpoint, Alcatel-Lucent claims it has twice the throughput of rival virtual routers –- for example, the one announced by Juniper –- and control plane performance that is eight times greater than the virtual router offerings of Cisco or Juniper, though such claims have yet to be independently verified. The company claims its partnership with Intel has helped it develop best-in-class capabilities, and the two companies are jointly showing off the VSR's capabilities at a Technology Symposium in Basking Ridge, N.J., today. (See Alcatel-Lucent announces global collaboration with Intel to speed industry move to cloud.)
That demo will show six x86 servers behaving as a single router that can offer up to 2Tbit/s throughput, with "the control plane and EMS [element management system] regarding it as a single instance. It's as if each server is the equivalent of a line card," says Manish Gulyani, VP of product marketing for IP, Optics and SDN.
The VSR comprises a number of virtual elements that will be available for testing and/or become commercially available at different stages during the coming year. (See Alcatel-Lucent Offers Portfolio of Virtual IP Edge Router Functions for full details.)
Already available and deployed in Northern Europe and Asia-Pacific is the virtual Route Reflector, a control plane application, while the Routing Simulator, a low-capacity virtual router that can be used for testing, is commercially available and in trials. The virtual Provider Edge router, which can be used for Ethernet and IP service delivery, is due to be commercially available in the first half of 2015.
Gulyani is keen to differentiate his company's offering in other ways too. He claims the VSR will go "well beyond the enterprise business support" offered by Juniper's virtual router, saying that the planned virtual Broadband Network Gateway and Wireless LAN Gateway functions will support residential and wireless broadband services too (the company previously announced the virtualization of its packet core platform for mobile operators). (See Alcatel-Lucent Lays Out Its NFV Plans.)
And, naturally, the company is claiming that its VSR capabilities can work with any hypervisor, any server platform and any orchestration/management system, though obviously it would like to sell packages that include the servers it has developed in partnership with Intel alongside its CloudBand system that helps to manage and enable virtual functions.
Alcatel-Lucent is keen to stress, though, that the VSR is not suitable for all deployment scenarios. The company believes that physical ASIC-based hardware platforms will be needed in the IP core network and also at metro network aggregation points that groom large volumes of data traffic. Where the VSR is applicable is at the customer premises and at the IP edge for service delivery, giving Alcatel-Lucent a strategy that includes virtual and hardware routers. That's handy for its business, providing a nice mix of hardware and software revenues, but only if that's how the market plays out, of course.
With that strategy in mind, Alcatel-Lucent is pitching its VSR to network operators that want to expand their existing networks but which don't need a full hardware routing platform from day one and also to large enterprises in the transport, utility and government sectors.
"There are some telcos that may go with the virtual option but that will take time… many customers expect to deploy both [virtual and physical] but we believe this will be a five-to-10 year transition," says Gulyani. "The discussions we are having are all about agility and innovation," he adds.
But what will that do to Alcatel-Lucent's successful IP product line in terms of sales and margins? Is the introduction of virtual routing capabilities already leading to expectations of lower prices for hardware products? "We are not seeing any price pressures from existing customers," claims Gulyani. Ultimately, "this will help improve our margins," he adds, prophetically.
That remains to be seen, but if Alcatel-Lucent's outlook is in any way accurate, then the impact on its IP-related revenues may not be traumatic, as the majority of sales come from the core and aggregation routers that the vendor believes will not become part of the NFV trend.
The battle to persuade network operators that a mix of router hardware and NFV elements is on, with the major router vendors all looking to protect at least some of their existing business. However, there is still the sense that this is all just the warm-up lap before the race proper begins -- that is, when large enterprises and network operators deploy virtual routers in large volumes. When that happens, the race will have really started, and there might be a crash or two on the first corner.
— Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading