NaaP (Network as a Platform) is the Latest Acronym to Spell Growth

For the enterprise and service provider crowd, that means riverbed is looking to bring the agility of the cloud to existing infrastructure, by adding a new abstraction layer, which automates and simplifies thorny tasks, such as provisioning, scaling, and overall services management.

Intel, Alcatel-Lucent unveil their cloud mobile network

A year after forming their wireless partnership, Intel and Franco-American network builder Alcatel-Lucent say they’re ready to start moving the mobile network from the cell tower into the data center. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, the two took the wraps off a new networking architecture called vRAN, which looks unlike any mobile system deployed to date.

vRAN moves the baseband processing that drives the mobile network to the cloud and at its center are servers running on [company]Intel[/company] Xeon processors. [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] then runs many of the functions of the network as software on that server. The concept is known as Cloud-RAN, and if adopted by the mobile industry, it could fundamentally change how networks are built.

The mobile industry certainly wouldn’t be the first to embrace virtualization, but the move is a particularly fraught one for carriers because of the highly distributed way mobile networks are designed. All of the processing might – and the lion’s share of the expense – of mobile networks is at its fringes, right under the radios that transmit signals to our phones. Today carriers have to maximize the capacity of those base stations so they can handle the enormous demand for mobile data and voice at peak times.

cloud-cell-tower

Cloud-RAN (the RAN standing for radio access network) would move all that baseband processing into a centralized data center and carriers could allot capacity to cell towers as it’s needed. It’s a more efficient way to build a network, and it could result in more reliable and faster mobile service for you and I. Instead of cell sites maxing out their capacity and dropping our LTE connections, Cloud-RAN could amp up capacity at congested cell sites – you can think of it as a kind processing SWAT team wherever its needed in the network at any given time.

There are some limitations to just how “cloud” Cloud-RAN can go. You’re not going to a mobile network built on Amazon Web Services, or a central massive data center for all of the U.S. Latency is a super important consideration in the mobile network so data centers will have to be reasonably close to the towers they serve, but Alcatel-Lucent wireless CTO Michael Peeters told me that ALU and Intel have managed to push that distance put to more than 100 km (62 miles), which is enough to build a virtualized network of thousands of cells.

“You could take a city of a 1 million-population city and host the entire everything in a single central location,” Peeters said.

Even before their collaboration began, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent had been plugging away at Cloud-RAN independently for half a decade or more, as have other mobile networking companies. The difference now, said Sandra Rivera, GM of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, is the two companies now have a commercially viable product in vRAN. “The products have been developed and we’ll be doing trials this year,” she said.

Two of those trial partners, China Mobile and Telefónica, will doing live demos of vRAN at their booths. If all goes as planned, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent hope to start installing their first data centers in commercial networks in 2016.

But Intel and Alcatel-Lucent face plenty of competition. [company]Nokia[/company] announced its competing network virtualization technology called Radio Cloud, and [company]ARM[/company] is working with network semiconductor maker [company]Cavium[/company] to put its processors at the heart of a cloud mobile system. And not every vendor believes that the Intel’s vision of a network running on off-the-shelf chips is feasible for something as complex as mobile network.

In an interview at MWC, [company]Ericsson[/company] CTO Ulf Ewaldsson told me that while moving the mobile network into a data center is most definitely possible, replacing its specialized digital signal processing workhorses with generic processors isn’t. He likened the baseband to the graphics accelerator, which is still separate from the CPU of any computer or high-end mobile device today. Just like GPUs can much more efficiently render pixels than a general-purpose processor, baseband processors can much more efficiently crunch signal data than any off-the-shelf chip, Ewaldsson said.

MWC-2015-ticker

Can ARM processors move the mobile network into the cloud?

ARM is already powering our smartphones, and it’s seeing its processor architecture migrate into networks that supply those phones their connectivity, but it has even more ambitious ideas for the mobile industry. It’s latching onto a new idea called Cloud-RAN, which turns the mobile network as we know it inside out. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, ARM and Cavium will be demoing their concept of a mobile network on a chip.

Cellular networks are typically built with their processing power on the edges, right under the cell towers that send out radio signals. As demand for LTE capacity mounts, carriers are forced to put more and more horsepower into their cell sites. Network vendors like [company]Ericsson[/company], [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] and [company]Nokia[/company] are building more powerful base stations designed to host dozens of cells spanning multiple 4G frequency bands and support tens of thousands of subscribers.

But the mobile industry is starting to look for alternatives to this constant chasing of capacity and it’s looking squarely at the data center. If we could move all of that processing into the cloud, we could have a much more flexible network that moves baseband resources from cell to cell as demand dictates. What’s more, instead of using highly specialized baseband processors in equally specialized base stations, you could use off-the-shelf processors and servers and run all of the functions of the network as software.

thunderxcavium

That’s where [company]ARM[/company] and network semiconductor maker Cavium come in. [company]Cavium[/company] is using its ThunderX data center processors, which use up to 48 ARMv8 cores, as the building blocks for a virtualized base station. At Mobile World Congress, Cavium and ARM will basically “load” an LTE network into system-on-chip (SoC).

The concept isn’t unique. [company]Intel[/company] has long been pursuing Cloud-RAN and it has a big head start on ARM. It’s already working with mobile network vendors like Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent and some of the world’s biggest carriers, like [company]China Mobile[/company], [company]SK Telecom[/company] and [company]Telefonica[/company], to run elements of their networks on its Xeon processors.

For itS part, ARM is thinking bigger than just Cloud-RAN. On Thursday it announced a grand-scale vision it calls Intelligent Flexible Cloud, which puts ARM processors in every nook and cranny of future software-defined and virtualized networks. In addition to Cavium, it revealed partnerships with [company]Altera[/company], [company]Advanced Micro Devices[/company], [company]AppliedMicro[/company], Enea, [company]EZChip[/company], Linaro, [company]Marvell[/company] and [company]Xilinix[/company].

MWC-2015-ticker

Where is enterprise infrastructure headed in 2015?

The enterprise industry is another year older … and hopefully somewhat wiser. Here’s what enterprise watchers should expect to see in 2015.

More cyber attacks

Sadly, this is an easy one. As bad as 2014 has been, and it has been bad, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Given the steady increase in value going through our systems (credit cards numbers, personal information, IP), organized crime and nation-sponsored attacks will continue to rise in quantity and sophistication. The current approaches to security clearly aren’t cutting it, which is why the security space is one of my biggest personal focus areas. (Full disclosure I’m an investor in Illumio, Menlo Security and ThreatStream, all companies in this space.)

AWS pushes further into the enterprise

Almost every startup that we fund today is using [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services, but it’s interesting to see AWS creep further into the medium and larger companies that dominate IT spending. At this year’s AWS Re:Invent, there were lots of compelling enterprise anecdotes, plenty of “all-in” stories, and, most importantly, the arrival of an ecosystem. There were startups and large companies alike announcing integrations with AWS with particular focus on the “-ities” — predictability, manageability, security, and availability. These are good signs of increased adoption in mainstream businesses where it’s now not “if” but “when” a company adopts cloud.

AWS: Reinvent

The rise of IaaS competitors

AWS continues with its strong lead, but 2014 also showed that there’s going to be a bigger fight than ever. In particular, [company]Google[/company] Compute Engine and [company]Microsoft[/company] Azure are rapidly improving their services and have the pocketbooks to fight this for the long term. Throw in Rackspace, IBM, vCloud Air, HP and the many other regional or vertically oriented offerings, and it’s going to be a major battle — with customers as the likely winners.

Containers get down to work

The rise of Docker has been one of the true success stories of 2014. However, it has also created a deluge of competitors (CoreOSRed HatUbuntu) and interesting co-opters (AmazonGoogle and VMware). Quite a year for a previously unheralded technology. The rise is real, but I believe that some of the hype will subside in 2015 as the some of the real work of making containers usable by enterprises begins in earnest.

Docker and the money container

Converged/hyper-converged infrastructure grabs the limelight

2014 saw continued excitement over “converged infrastructure,” pre-configured hardware/software bundles that are powerful and easy to adopt. Nutanix, VCE and Cisco UCS get most of the attention, but there’s lots of interesting competition on the way, especially as the latter two vendors update their relationship status to “It’s complicated.” Latest offerings include VMware’s EVO designs to new products from the big system vendors (Dell and HP are particularly aggressive). And I can personally attest to a slew of startups heading into this converged world with a variety of technologies and approaches.

APIs on the mind

I wrote about “mobile-first infrastructure” earlier this year and continue to think it will drive several longer-term infrastructure changes. In 2015, I think it will manifest itself most as the rise of APIs in enterprise development, as companies both produce and consume APIs like never before. Look for increased conversations, companies and challenges arising over this shift. (Full disclosure: I’m a backer of RunScope, which makes developer tools for this “API economy.”)

Network virtualization gets its legs

There has been much discussion of the arrival of software-defined networking (SDN). However, the term itself has been polluted to a point where it means different things to almost anyone you ask. I prefer the term network virtualization to speak more holistically about the advancement in separating out the logical network from the physical network. Cisco ACI and VMware NSX appear to have the lead, and 2014 saw significant movement from proof-of-concepts toward significant paid usage. Anecdotally, most of the adoption is in service providers, financial services and tech-heavy IT companies. 2015 should see further progress in the adoption, including by a broader set of consumers.

Big deals for big data

In 2014 there was nonstop talk about big data, analytics, and the opportunities and challenges of each. 2014 funding for companies has been unprecedented, ranging from Intel’s huge bet on Cloudera to substantial private investments in DataStax (driver of Cassandra)Databricks (driver of Spark)PlatforaAltiScaleDataGravity and numerous others. (My company, General Catalyst, invested in AltiScale and DataGravity.) Next year these companies will all focus on revenue — and we’ll see how the public markets respond to at least one Hadoop vendor, as Hortonworks is now a public company.

That’s one person’s cut at developments in enterprise infrastructure for 2015, and I’m sure I’ve omitted others that will be even bigger. That’s what is so fun about this space these days: We’re in a modern-day renaissance driven by the convergence of new technologies, new expectations and new challenges, all of which point toward more and bigger changes happening each year than may have taken place in prior decades. Here’s to the fun ride ahead.

Dr. Steve Herrod is a managing director at General Catalyst Partners and was CTO and senior vice president of R&D at VMware.

Note: This story was updated at 5:24 p.m. PST to correct the reference to Cisco ACI (application-centric infrastructure) not ACE.