Alcatel-Lucent makes its network play for the cloud

Alcatel Lucent, the grandaddy in telecommunications gear, has dreams of getting into the cloud infrastructure game with a new venture called Nuage Networks (nuage means cloud in French). The division was created a year ago and is prepping a new product aimed at creating flexible and programmable networks for cloud providers.

Because of the venture’s telco background, Nuage CEO Sunil Khandekar says the plan is to start marketing the Nuage product to telco cloud customers first. However it could work in any enterprise data center. But while Khandekar was willing to tell me that the product is facing its first customer trials this month ahead of an April launch, he didn’t want to tell me what, exactly, it is. He did stress that the product will work with existing software and hardware to deliver flexible and programmable networks.

The goal of the Nuage product is to help customers offer their own infrastructure-as-a-service products.

“This venture focuses on a private data center and cloud architecture to provide multi-tenant services like those provided by Amazon(S AMZN) Web Services, but with the reliability and security that users expect,” Khandekar said in a call. “Nuage leverages the understanding and capability we have from serving out telecommunications customers.”

That doesn’t solve the mystery, but it does give you a sense of the market Nuage is aiming for. However, it’s unclear if this is the right market to go after. Telecommunications companies have long touted their ability to offer cloud computing, but have failed to deliver much in the way of instant provisioning and pay-per-use billing. However, their control of the network is a powerful differentiator as is their experience building highly reliable systems — five nines availability is associated with the telephone network.

The challenge has been that the telcos have been building out cloud infrastructures the way they built out their networks — with expensive telco-grade gear. Compare that with the infrastructure that Google(s goog), Amazon and Facebook(s fb) where failure is assumed. Thus, they buy cheap, replaceable hardware. The big investment is in the software to optimize the underlying gear, not in smarter gear. If running a cloud is going to be a cost-sensitive business as opposed to a high-revenue, high-margin endeavor then the telco clouds are doomed to offer expensive and dated infrastructure.

There are hints that this might be changing as telcos try to find the right ground between high-end and high-performance at a competitive cost, and Nuage wants to help. Khandekar says the company will focus on solving network problems at Layers 2 through 4 and will work on existing protocols common in the networking world. That could be anything but it’s enough to pique my curiosity.

Nuage is also one of several efforts by networking gear vendors to address the needs of the scaled out data center. Cisco (s sco) has pitched an entire software-defined networking strategy as well as spun out a data center startup of its own called Insieme. Juniper meanwhile, has purchased Contrail, which has an equally fluffy version of how to remove the network challenges facing data centers in an era of webscale and the cloud.