Q&A: Alcatel-Lucent's SDN CEO

A sneak peek at the SDN startup that's making its big debut on April 2. Here's what they're thinking (vaguely) and why they had to be a spin-in

Craig Matsumoto, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

March 29, 2013

7 Min Read
Q&A: Alcatel-Lucent's SDN CEO

Alcatel-Lucent's software-defined networking (SDN) startup hasn't had time to move in. The office for Nuage looks a bit like someone just moved out -- not surprising, considering Cavium Networks Inc. vacated it for a bigger headquarters. The lobby decoration is an exhibit case showing an Alcatel-Lucent timeline over the years. The stuff from the exhibit isn't there, just the empty exhibit case. Such is the glamor of startup life. Basil Alwan, president of AlcaLu's IP division, decided his company's major SDN initiative had to be done by a spin-in, an independent company that would have access to AlcaLu's intellectual property but wouldn't be beholden to AlcaLu's corporate agenda. So, Nuage Networks was born and inserted into the Cavium building, right near the two other Mountain View, Calif., buildings AlcaLu occupies. This is where Alwan's team built up TiMetra, the router startup that's now driving most of AlcaLu's wireline technology direction. Several weeks ago, Light Reading sat with Sunil Khandekar, Nuage's CEO, to get some perspective on what the startup might be doing. We were joined by AlcaLu Director of Product Marketing Houman Modarres, who had flown to California from Miami that morning. We sat in a conference room abutting the lobby; it wasn't fancy, but with good chairs and good coffee, you don't need much else. Click "next" to see our interview.
Sunil Khandekar, next to the highly decorative Nuage whiteboard.

— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading Light Reading: Is the inside of the office more decorated than the lobby? Khandekar: No, it's worse. [Laughs.] I'm actually moving my team to another building. We'll invite you over, but I don't know -- it might be half this size. Light Reading: Where have you drawn the team from? A bunch of TiMetra people? Khandekar: The idea is not to steal from the mother ship. I do have some key guys from TiMetra, but it was also about assembling the very best who understand Web 2.0 kinds of technologies. People who lived and breathed the virtualization world and who did automation in Web-scale companies. Light Reading: How many people do you have? Khandekar: I can't say that. We grew very steadily. It's in our culture from TiMetra -- even during the bubble times, we never grew to 200 people. Light Reading: What's the product at Nuage? Software to run on TiMetra boxes? To run anywhere? Khandekar: Right now, I can't say much. The early solutions are islands, in many ways. There are things that haven't been taken into account -- hybrid clouds, virtualized and non-virtualized clouds, seamless connectivity to VPNs, disaster recovery. And to do it all at scale with reliability and consistency of SLAs. We are starting where others have left off. Light Reading: That whole question of scale -- that did get left off, in the first round of SDN. Khandekar: Yes. And look, networking equipment is a very small component of the overall data center compared to compute and storage, but it contributes hugely to the efficiency of the compute. We had a customer yesterday talking about this traditional approach to IT. You want an application. IT does the inventory and resourcing and the configuration of the network, and maybe three weeks later, you'll deploy your applications. Versus having a self-service portal: compute and network, instantaneously consumable. That, to us, is the biggest opportunity. Modarres: Server virtualization was the trigger, because now you have consumable computing. The analogy is: You walk up to an ATM. It tells you in beautiful colors and graphics how much you have in each account. So, you ask for $100 and it says, "Great. We'll mail it to you." Khandekar: It's a noisy market. It's hot and noisy. The idea with Nuage is about a comprehensive SDN solution for a very pronounced requirement. [The group agrees to break for coffee.] Modarres: There was no Peet's in Miami. Good Cuban coffee, but no Peet's. Light Reading: What's Cuban coffee like? Modarres: Cuban coffee's very strong, very sweet. They call it cafe con leche, but it's different from the Mexican milk coffee. It's very thick: espresso, one-to-one with milk, with as much sugar as you can stand. You put a piece of dental floss in there, you'd come out with rock candy. Khandekar: At TiMetra, Basil ran a tight ship, but that was one place where we splurged a little bit. We got a good coffee machine. That's one thing I did after I came back from Europe [running TiMetra's EMEA business]. Light Reading: That's a key investment. Khandekar: I have to have a good coffee machine. Light Reading: How did you start looking into SDN? Khandekar: I was looking at other things that might be interesting for us. We talk about the three waves of routing: enterprise routing, Internet-based routing, and service routing. It's very similar to the transition we're seeing in the data-center world. You saw the first wave, which was very basic Web properties that needed to be connected with switching. Then you transition to the second wave, where you had this massive server sprawl that led to requiring bigger and bigger switches -- but very much enterprise requirements, basic Level 2 requirements. Now, it's all about consolidation, virtualization, multitenancy at scale and programmability. That's where we developed a thesis, got it validated with customers and went to work. Light Reading: When was that? Khandekar: We really started work on it early last year. We have the advantage of leveraging a lot of our understanding of how we [at TiMetra/AlcaLu] built the multitenanted networks in the wide-area network. It's about understanding how to simplify it, how to make networks more programmable, more consumable. That's where SDN comes in -- SDN bridges the gap between applications and the network in a way where applications don't have to worry about how those network behaviors that they want are implemented. Light Reading: What's the talent pool like out there? Are people looking for new opportunities because of SDN? Khandekar: We've not had an issue recruiting people. As I said, we've been able to recruit people from Web-scale companies, from data-center virtualization companies. SDN does make the networking guys very excited. Light Reading: It does! You talk to people who have been around a long time, and they say it's the most exciting thing that's happened in 10 years. Khandekar: Indeed. In that regard, yes, I think it's in some ways easier to attract talent. Modarres: Every time the IT guy wants to know what time it is, the networking guys try to teach him how to build a watch. What VLAN, what IP address, what parameters. The goal is to have the application or IT guy ask in his own terminology what he needs. The network can map those requirements to topology -- abstract all that stuff away from what the CLI command looks like. It should even know what you're about to ask. I want to make sure you have the impression there's a real thing here. How do virtual machines, that can now magically pop up and disappear, get connected? You need to have a tenant management layer. You need to have policy -- who can talk to who ["whom," actually] and when. A good framework hasn't been laid out. Khandekar: There's been an inordinate amount of focus on the southbound APIs and protocols [like OpenFlow]. With new encapsulation techniques you impose new requirements, such as new multicast requirements -- and there you have it: You're down in the weeds, off implementing a new protocol. Light Reading: In 10 years, is "SDN" going to be just normal networking to us? Khandekar: You need TiMetra's 2004 crystal ball for that. You need to ask Basil. [Laughs.]

About the Author(s)

Craig Matsumoto

Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Yes, THAT Craig Matsumoto – who used to be at Light Reading from 2002 until 2013 and then went away and did other stuff and now HE'S BACK! As Editor-in-Chief. Go Craig!!

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