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Dell NFV platform provides a starting step for service providers

In a bid to help service providers get started with network functions virtualization, Dell packages its products into a Dell NFV platform.

Dell introduced a network functions virtualization (NFV) platform and starter kit aimed at simplifying implementation of a convoluted technology for service providers.

The Dell NFV platform is essentially a packaging of the company's server, storage and switching products, combined with Dell software and open source technology such as OpenStack. Dell is also promoting its bare-metal Open Networking data center switches that run third-party operating systems from Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks, as part of the platform.

The platform is meant to be a foundation for NFV, on top of which providers can add virtual network functions, said Jeff Baher, senior director of product marketing at Dell.

The idea is to provide a clear path into NFV at a time when many service providers don't know how to make sense of all of the complicated elements.

"A whole bunch of startups and legacy players have come into this [NFV] market and essentially provided pieces to the solution," said Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management and NFV strategy at Dell. "It looks like Legos. The carrier is like, 'How do I put it all together?' That's the biggest hurdle right now to getting deployments and proofs of concept accelerated."

Dell is promoting its platform as scalable in any direction, from a single server running networking services in an unstaffed point of presence, to racks and racks of infrastructure in hyper-scale data centers.

To prime the pump, Dell is offering NFV starter kits with reference designs and other support. One kit is based on Dell's PowerEdge R630 rack-mounted servers and the other on the Dell M630 blade servers. Each kit ships with four servers, Dell's S6000 switch (with choice of operating system), a package of Dell management software (Active Fabric Manager, Active Fabric Controller, Dell Foglight and OpenManage Network Manager) and a Linux or OpenStack distribution. Dell is taking orders today but it did not disclose prices.

"The starter kit is a good help," said Andre Kindness, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "If you go to any vendor it's tough to figure out what components you need to get going on NFV, so it's good to have reference guides and education materials. It's exactly what most customers want."

NFV doesn't necessarily require full racks of data center infrastructure in all use cases, said Akshay Sharma, research director at Gartner. A single server can replace specialized appliances at customer sites, for example. However, NFV deployments will converge with service providers' cloud services. NFV platforms that enable hyper-converged data centers that can support NFV and cloud services will become important, he said.

The Dell NFV platform also promises to embrace every piece of open network technology that the industry is buzzing about these days. Specifics are a little fuzzy at the moment, but the platform will use technology from OpenDaylight and OpenStack. OpenFlow is an option on the switching side. And Dell is a founding member of the Linux Foundation's new Open Platform for NFV Project, which is building an open source reference platform for NFV technology.

"Dell's open approach is probably their differentiator to get into that market and push Cisco, HP and IBM aside," Kindness said.

The foundational Dell NFV platform is a nice start, but Dell has a lot more work to do, Sharma said. "They need to provide validation of solutions, with service-chaining, billing, the whole end-to-end story."

Dell also needs to demonstrate integration with the vendors who will provide software for virtual network functions, Kindness said. "What they're offering is just a platform," he said. "The software for the network services is the bigger issue. They haven't said who they are partnering with."

Kindness also said he was concerned by the number of different Dell management software products packaged in the platform, which might prove confusing for service providers.

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