OpenStack Summit Day 2 – Wrapping my head around NFV

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Day 3 isn’t technically over yet. But I’m exhausted. And jet lag is hard. So I’m sitting in one of the conference hotels in a very low chair with my laptop in my lap. Don’t judge.

One of the biggest ideas at OpenStack Summit this year is NFV (Network Function Virtualization). A straw poll of the talk descriptions reveals approximately 213245 talks on the topic this week in Tokyo.

A thousand years ago I worked for a crappy phone company in Richmond and I got to know how a telephone company works. I got to spend some time in telephone central offices and helped solve carrier-level problems. With NFV, I understood why people wanted to get into that world (there’s a TON of money sitting in those dusty places). But I didn’t quite understand the technical plan. What is going to be virtualized? Where is the ceiling for it? It just didn’t make engineering sense to me.

To help combat that ignorance I’ve gone to 4 or 5 of those 213245 sessions today. I’ve also asked pretty much every booth in the Marketplace ‘how are we doing this stuff?’. At the HP Helion booth, I got my engineering answer. My disconnect was that the logistics of defining a big pipe (OC-48 or something like that) in software would just be an exercise in futility. Going all the way up the software stack with that many packets would require a horizontal scale that wasn’t cost-effective.

Of course that’s not the goal. There IS a project name CORD (Central Office Re-imagined as a Datacenter) that is intriguing. But it’s also very new, and mostly theory at this point.

But If we can take some of the equipment that is currently out in the remote sites (central offices, cell towers) and virtualize it, we can then move it into the datacenter instead of having it out in the wild. That makes maintenance and fault-tolerance a lot cheaper. It also saves on man-hours since you don’t have to get in a truck and drive out to the middle of nowhere to work on something.

Another added benefit is that it would disrupt the de facto monopoly that currently exists with the companies that provide that specialized equipment. Competition is a good thing.

That’s the gist. And it’s a good one. We can take commodity hardware and use it to virtualize specialied equipment that normally lives in the remote locations. And we can virtualize it in a datacenter that’s easier and cheaper to get to.

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