Nuage sprouts Alcatel's software-only bid to automate clouds

The internal startup is launching a platform it says will run on any vendor's network

Alcatel-Lucent is promising more manageable cloud computing through Nuage Networks, an internal startup that is making its formal debut on Tuesday.

Nuage has been Alcatel's wholly owned vehicle for developing its SDN (software-defined networking) platform, called VSP (Virtualized Services Platform). The venture, based in Silicon Valley and led by several longtime Alcatel executives, is unveiling VSP at an event on Tuesday in Santa Clara, California.

VSP is pure software, an overlay for networks and data centers that will work with any vendor's equipment because it's based on industry standards including IP (Internet Protocol), Alcatel says. It's designed to make SDN more programmable and automatic so enterprises and service providers can build more useful private, public and hybrid clouds, Alcatel-Lucent says.

SDN is designed to bring networks up to speed with the virtualization of computing and storage, removing network configuration tasks that are still required when VMs (virtual machines) move to different physical servers around a network. Until networks are as virtualized as the servers they connect, some of the benefits of virtualization will be unrealized, analysts say.

"You can deploy a new application in two hours. But it still takes two weeks to configure the network," said Joe Skorupa, an analyst at Gartner. SDN eventually could replace the many manual tweaks that network engineers make to keep up with changes in virtualized data centers, Skorupa said. But that transition will happen at a different speed at each company as old network gear and processes are phased out, he said.

Nuage's software-overlay approach could help Alcatel gain ground in markets where it lags behind networking rivals, such as in North America, Skorupa said.

According to Alcatel, Nuage took a software approach because that's the most efficient way to virtualize a network. Enterprises can transform the way their servers are networked without having to install any new hardware, said Manish Gulyani, head of marketing for fixed and core products at Alcatel. VSP uses standard networking protocols and works with all the major cloud platforms, including OpenStack, CloudStack and VMware, according to the company.

"We've taken the approach to solve it where it should be solved, not ... to sell more hardware," Gulyani said.

Other vendors appear to be taking different approaches to SDN, though it's not yet clear what form all the offerings will take, according to Infonetics Research analyst Michael Howard. For example, Cisco Systems says its One Platform Kit (OnePK) will be a set of 710 APIs (application programming interfaces) for software developers to take advantage of features in Cisco network gear. None of these systems can afford to lock out all other brands, Howard said.

"To do SDN, you really have to make your software be able to work in a multivendor environment" because that's what's out there in the real world, Howard said. OnePK might make others do more of the work to tie all the pieces together, but it won't force users to buy only Cisco gear, he said. Cisco says its network equipment will work with OpenFlow, a widely accepted common denominator for SDN, while OnePK and the rest of the Cisco ONE (Open Network Environment) architecture offer broader virtualization capabilities.

Alcatel compares VSP's operation to cellular roaming, which begins when a cellphone identifies itself to a carrier when it's turned on in a new location. Based on the phone's identity and the subscriber's service plan, the carrier then makes the right services available to that phone in the new location.

With VSP, when a VM is moved from one physical server to another, a Virtual Routing and Switching (VRS) agent on the server will detect the change and collect information about the VM. The VRS will tell the Virtual Services Controller about the newly arrived VM, and the controller will refer to the Virtual Services Directory for the correct routing, switching and security settings for it, said Lindsay Newell, head of marketing for Alcatel's Networks and Platforms group. For example, a given VM might be set to communicate only with other VMs from the same business unit.

Where most SDN platforms can only control Layer 2 switching, VSP can also modify Layer 3 routing settings and Layer 4 security filters, eliminating more manual configuration steps, Newell said. It sets up direct virtual tunnels between VMs and makes networks 40 percent more efficient, according to Alcatel.

VSP can even set up tunnels across a carrier's IP network, taking advantage of standard MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) and again staying compatible with existing infrastructure, Newell said. This capability can be useful for hybrid clouds, in which a carrier's cloud resources supplement an enterprise's own private cloud during peak activity times, Newell said.

Service providers are already asking for virtualization systems that will span networks and data centers, Infonetics' Howard said.

"There's a boundary between the data center and the WAN," Howard said. Today, those two resources are typically built and operated by different groups and carriers can't even view them as a single infrastructure, let alone manage them together, he said. They're hoping for faster service deployment, which could boost their revenue, and more efficient operation in the form of making sure service agreements are being met and their resources are being used well, he said.

Alcatel's timeline for putting VSP onto the market is aggressive. The technology will enter trials later this month at a few customers, including French carrier SFR, British cloud service provider Exponential-e and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Then, in the middle of this year, VSP will become generally available worldwide, the company said. The fact that there's no new hardware to test or manufacture makes this possible, Newell said.

There's still much to be proved in network virtualization, because the technologies are complex and real-world networks come in many shapes and sizes, according to Gartner's Skorupa. Specific users will try to implement SDN in environments that were never dreamed of in labs, he said.

"Once you turn it loose, only then do you really begin to get thorough testing," Skorupa said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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