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Dell will compete against telecom vendor heavy hitters to virtualize the carrier edge.
At Dell World last week, the company announced a strategic partnership that combines its NFV infrastructure (NFVI) with Brocade Communication Systems Inc.'s Vyatta vRouter, which Brocade claims is a platform with carrier grade routing VPN and security features that rival physical routers.
The Vyatta vRouter will actually be only one of many virtual network functions (VNFs) that could run in a Dell NFV ecosystem. But it's especially notable considering so many telco networking vendors -- including Alcatel-Lucent and Juniper Networks Inc. -- are launching virtual edge routers with convergence and NFV orchestration that will let carriers transition complex network functions into dynamically provisioned software instances.
For Dell, the push into the carrier market won't be simple.
"Dell needs to invest to increase its telecom expertise,” said Lee Doyle, principal analyst at Doyle Research. "Dell will need experienced SEs [systems engineers], experienced sales people, professional services [and] partners. Dell doesn’t have a networking channel except what they bought from Force10 -- and that’s a different story than telecom."
On the tech side, "Dell as an NFV prospect is really interesting," Doyle said.
Convergence at the heart of Dell NFV
In order for operators to execute NFV, they'll need to build converged data center architecture that they're not at all accustomed to working with. That is where Dell hopes to differentiate.
"A lot of operators are planning to put mini data centers in the same COs [central offices] with their edge routers that are operating the services that are becoming VNFs," said Michael Howard, principal analyst and co-founder of Infonetics. Deutsche Telekom, for example, has identified about 85 COs where it will build data centers to execute NFV, he added. "Because NFV runs on data center equipment, Dell is a serious player."
At the heart of Dell's NFV is the newly released PowerEdge FX2, a chassis that combines slots for networking, storage and compute on servers running high-performance Intel Xeon E5-2600v3 processors, and that rely on Open Network Platform (ONP) reference architecture and Data Plane Development Kit.
With the combined technology, users can choose their own Linux OS and OpenStack distributions and deploy a management fabric from Dell. The idea is to move away from costly purpose-built boxes and simultaneously give users a flexible ecosystem into which they can add their choice of virtualized services.
"We believe if we can get these type of platforms in place and give customers a choice of OS and OpenStack [orchestration], then their focus will be on VNF which is [what] makes the revenue," said Arpit Joshipura, vice president of Dell Networking.
"That’s where Brocade fits in," he added. Once a virtual router is implemented in that context, operators could virtualize business or private line functions or a number of other functions.
Brocade has also primed Vyatta router for NFV. The company has opened up the router platform to run VNFs, such as security, and says it is forming its own ecosystem of application developers. Brocade also supports open networking, allowing users to choose from OpenStack and Linux distributions.
Which is the winning virtual router?
The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has defined the basics of an NFV infrastructure, which include converged data center functions, management and orchestration (MANO), and various pieces of NFV software for control and service insertion.
"Dell has one combination that seems to work, but we don’t know the winning combination," said Howard.
Beyond the existing competition, Howard expects to see similar releases from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Ericsson, as well as additions to Cisco's current offering.
If all of the underlying infrastructure works equally, success could boil down to which vendor enables the widest array of the most useful VNFs. Joshipura says Dell is focused on qualifying a large ecosystem of VNF partners without forcing them to go through a Dell certification that alters the application or makes it only viable in a proprietary system.
But Dell faces a further challenge: Many carriers aren't likely to trust intelligent routing -- with nuanced features like QoS -- to virtual routers. In the initial transition period, Howard said carriers will move related services, such as basic firewalling, to virtual routers, while maintaining physical routers for packet forwarding. That'll also require a level of integration and control across virtual and physical routers.
Dell NFV starter kit
When Dell first unveiled its NFV platform in October, it also launched a starter kit for early adopters that need a simple start for proof-of-concept projects. The starter kit is now available to operators and lets them get started with a scaled-down version of NFV. The kit includes the ability to converge compute nodes with the open networking platform, OpenStack orchestration and Dell's fabric manager and controller.
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