Cloud enablement

Cisco Beckons Carriers to the Cloud

Equipment vendors are eager for carriers to offer cloud networking as a service, but that's going to require a lot of changes in the network, as reflected in an ambitious effort being launced by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) today.

Cisco is announcing a blueprint called Unified Service Delivery (USD), which it claims will simplify the carrier data center and let carriers make better use of virtualization -- the technology that treats groups of servers or disk drives as pools of resources to be divided arbitrarily among users and services.

USD is a step beyond the Unified Computing System that Cisco recently announced -- the all-in-one data center package that, in many people's eyes, puts Cisco in competition with server vendors. (See Cisco Dreams of Data Center Unity.)

"This is really a grouping of the data center with the entire wide area network," says Eve Griliches, an analyst with IDC . "Cisco's previous announcements were about unifying the data center. Now they're telling service providers they can take this unified data center and attach it to the network, to get to the customer that's already on that network."

The whole idea is to get carriers into the swing of cloud networking so they can offer cloud services the way Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) has been doing. To hear the equipment vendors tell it, cloud services should be creating a kind of excitement in the telecom trade press not seen since lotion-infused sheets rocked Tissue World.

But the response so far hasn't been worth sneezing at. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) has gotten into the cloud game with its Synaptic Hosting service, announced in August. (See AT&T Goes Synaptic.) But in most cases, service providers aren't showing interest, says Simon Aspinall, a marketing director at Cisco.

The key is that service providers -- and many data centers, for that matter -- aren't using new data center technology to its fullest extent, Aspinall says.

"Not many people have put in place the virtualization benefits. Not many people have put in place the unified fabric benefits," he says. "It's surprising how often they are not. You still see people put a server in place, put one service on it, and let it run."

Cisco isn't the first vendor to make this kind of observation. Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) rolled out its own data center architecture in November, with the goal of simplifying the network. In Juniper's case, that meant grouping multiple routers virtually, so that the network thinks of them as a single chassis. In turn, that technique can help eliminate layers of aggregation.

"The basic architecture of the data center grew organically 10 years ago and hasn't really been rethought since," says Andrew Ingram, vice president of product marketing and business development for Juniper's data center business group.

But for some carriers, it could take more than an architecture to get cloud services rolling, says Frank Dzubeck, principal analyst with Communications Network Architects.

The problem is that cloud offerings come with more baggage than hosted services do. The most common model is likely to be a hybrid cloud, one that combines guarded, private networks with a public cloud that multiple enterprises would use for less sensitive work. That creates security and reliability questions that carriers need solid answers for, according to Dzubeck.

Moreover, carriers are going to have to open some control to the multiple tenants of the cloud. "The customer is going to have to be able to manage not only their private network that they own, but the portion of the cloud they're getting from the carrier," Dzubeck says. "That's one of the reasons you see things moving slowly with this hybrid cloud."

The good news is that carriers are thinking about these problems and looking for ways to make the cloud work for them. "We're much further along than people think we are," Dzubeck contends. "The industry is starting to look at what it's going to take to make it into a much more robust business environment."

Griliches thinks USD could be a good first step. "It'll really help service providers provision faster. It just takes too damn long for service providers to initiate services," she says.

It comes down, as usual, to the threat of service providers becoming dumb pipes that carry over-the-top services (cloud services, to be exact) from the likes of Amazon, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), or Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO). Better service provisioning might not change that situation by itself, but it at least gives the carriers something to counter with.

"It can put them in a situation to partner with over-the-top guys or even offer services that those guys might want to buy," Griliches says. "It may not make them into a whole different type of provider, but it at least will put them on par with the over-the-top guys."

As for Cisco's USD itself, the first steps involve not just the philosophy behind the word "unified," but some new product offerings as well.

Cisco is introducing two 10-Gbit/s modules and a 40-Gbit/s card for the CRS-1, the goal being to make the four- or eight-port varieties of the core router viable options for data center interconnect. Cisco is also creating a data-center version of the CRS-1's software licensing agreement.

The CRS-1 won't be the only option, Aspinall stresses -- but Cisco needed lower-cost options in order to make it viable for connecting data centers. The key point, he says, is that Cisco is providing a concrete link between its unified data center and the greater carrier network.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

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