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Cisco and the Evolution of the Service Provider Network

On February 18, Cisco announced the evolution of service provider (SP) networks. It is probably a good idea to step back, just a little, and explain how Cisco sees the challenges ahead and how we intend to continue to provide our mobile service provider customers with the strongest portfolio of solutions in the industry. That’s the reason I am writing this blog post. In it, I hope to share with you some of our learnings from the past year and also, explain a little bit about the rationale for our announcement.

We are virtualizing our entire SP portfolio. The year 2013 is one where the concept of “Network Function Virtualization” (NfV) caught the industry by storm. In NfV, virtualized network functions are software appliances executing on virtual machines delivered in a telco cloud environment. In a nutshell, NfV is attractive to our customers because it allows them to clearly delineate the respective values of software, hardware and professional services for total solution integration. Practices based on data center techniques promise to reduce the cost of operating the network and simplify work processes through the agility we are seeing today in the cloud environment. And none of this evolution will compromise the ability of service providers to deploy multi-vendor solutions though it is fair to state, procurement practices will need to re-align to this brave new world. For example, rather than procure integrated network functions to be assembled into a network, service providers may have to separate out  layers each representing purchasing decisions into choices for virtualized functions, virtualized environment, hardware, and then vertical professional services to bring it all together.

All of the above statements are reasonably well understood in the industry. So what is different about Cisco’s offer? Well first of all, it is the strength and depth of our commitments. We are bringing forward a broad portfolio of virtualized appliances. Since I am spending a significant amount of time developing solutions for wireless networks, and since Mobile World Congress is approaching quickly, let me borrow examples from the mobile network domain. Significantly, a majority of these operate on user plane traffic. This is very relevant because we are making a strong statement that NfV is not just for “control plane” appliances like DNS servers or 3GPP Mobility Management Entities; it is also for the user plane elements inclusive of mobile gateways and DPI as well as the Gi-LAN middleboxes that deliver optimization and monetization capabilities. Secondly, we are bringing together the end-to-end aspects of the solution. One particularly attractive example is exemplified by what we call the “optimization feedback control loop” for mobile networks (with apologies for the jargon – we at Cisco are passionate about technology!). The control loop we envision is defined across the mobile network and includes RAN, policy; as well media plane optimization elements. This is truly innovative and furthermore represents an “open” multivendor approach to end-to-end self-optimizing mobile networks. It is quite a departure from what a RAN vendor might offer (which invariable ties RAN and core in a proprietary manner). Third, Cisco is introducing significant simplification into mobile networks by introducing a unique software function, based on well understood SOA concepts like “Enterprise Service Bus”, to provide intelligent protocol mediation functionality into mobile networks. With Cisco’s mediation capability for mobile networks, a RAN agent can tell a middle-box policy function to render more aggressive media compression, or support intelligent QoS uplift services, or integrate a 3rd party API gateway. Finally, Cisco will be explaining its strategy with respect to virtualization software which provides the data center with the agility required to support services at a much lower TCO than conventional infrastructures used today.

Moving forward, Cisco sees an essential role to SDN in building virtualized infrastructures. Our Nexus 1000v Switch has supported service chaining (the ability to “cascade” or “sequentially compose” data center workflows for more than two years now and we are investing to ensure critical mobile network requirements for performance and functionality are supported in our SDN portfolio. SDN infrastructure adds value by overlaying connectivity across data center virtualized appliances. This connectivity is “tied at the hip” to the virtualization software environment so that the virtualized network can be fully automated along with the virtualized compute and storage. SDN has, in fact, simplified the deployed of NfV!

At Cisco, we feel that an eco-system approach to mobile services benefits our customers. We will announce a set of partnerships that supplement our own internal capabilities. In many respects, the industry has come to terms with the observation that NfV potentially defines the ultimate open environment. A virtual machine image will run on a hypervisor without any changes and that same image can be adapted for scalable configuration, performance, and fault management in a cloud with reasonable effort. (We say “instrumented for the cloud”.) Cisco has embraced the de-factor industry standards approach and we have demonstrated to many of our customers, in lab trials and proofs-of-concept, the tremendous promise of an open environment.

Finally, I’d like to offer you a compelling thought. Cisco investments in support of virtualization of service provider networks span hardware (compute, switching, storage), virtualization software, virtualized network functions, and also, professional services. If not Cisco to deliver on NfV, then who? Only Cisco can bring it all together.

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1 Comments.


  1. Scott, you started off by saying “We are virtualizing our entire SP portfolio.”

    Wow! – now that’s a bold statement. Knowing that much of the current infrastructure at many of the legacy SPs is vertically integrated, by design, I see this network function decoupling exercise as a huge undertaking.

    Granted, professional services will likely be a key component of the evolving path to SP NfV in action. I’ll look forward to more updates on how this plan will unfold over time.

    Indeed, it’s a very exciting time to be involved in the Service Provider sector.

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