Cisco On Its NFV Strategy: 'No One Else Comes Close'

Cisco said customer feedback to its new Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) platform showcased this week at the Mobile World Congress event has been "absolutely great," and that none of its competitors even "come close" when it comes to its NFV play.

Cisco's launch of its new Evolved Services Platform (ESP), a virtualization and orchestration software platform for carriers, came amid a tidal wave of similar NFV announcements from rivals including Hewlett-Packard, Alcatel-Lucent, Dell and Juniper.

But, despite this rush of rivals, Cisco says its NFV strategy with ESP is set to be the industry's best.

[Related: HP Takes Aim At Cisco With Network Virtualization Offering ]

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"With this announcement, we are leading the way with respect to virtualization and software-defined networking," said Kelly Ahuja, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Mobility Business Group, during a webinar Wednesday at Mobile World Congress. "[Cisco's] unified platform for service providers and the Evolved Services Platform is really representing, fundamentally, a different way for operators to build and operate their networks. It's the industry's most extensive virtualization and orchestration effort, which is spanning the entire architecture: mobile, video, cloud, as well as fixed [networks] and business and consumer services. No one else comes close."

NFV, a close technology relative of software-defined networking (SDN), refers to the virtualization of Layer 4 - 7 network functions, such as firewalls, intrusion-prevention systems and load balancing. It's specifically targeted at carriers, who are embracing NFV as a way to speed up the delivery of new services and reduce operational costs.

The technology emerged as a major theme this week at the 2014 Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona. Companies including Alcatel-Lucent, Dell and Juniper introduced new NFV technologies, with HP even announcing a new NFV business unit, to be led by HP Networking head Bethany Mayer.

Ahuja said what makes ESP different from other NFV solutions is that it doesn't just virtualize a single network function or service, but drives virtualization across a service provider's entire architecture, including cloud, video, mobile and fixed networks. In addition, Ahuja said, ESP orchestrates those virtualized functions to help service providers create and automate services in real-time.

"What we've heard from operators is that it's not just about virtualization. If you virtualize chaos, it's still chaos," Ahuja said. "You've got to not just virtualize, which is really separating the software from hardware, but you really need to take virtualization, and automation and orchestration and package them all together. That's exactly what we are doing with ESP."

Ahuja said other key attributes of ESP is that it can be used on top of third-party, or non-Cisco, networking gear, and that it's elastic, allowing service providers to scale capacity up and down as needed.

NEXT: Carriers Under Pressure To Embrace NFV

Cisco's launch of ESP comes as the networking giant struggles to regain growth in its service provider business. For its second fiscal quarter, ending Jan. 25, Cisco said product orders in its service provider segment were down 12 percent year-over-year. In the previous quarter, Cisco's service provider business was down 13 percent year-over-year.

Ahuja said service provider customers including China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, SunGard and Telecom Italia have already stepped forward to endorse ESP, and that, since the announcement, "many others" have expressed an interest.

According to Akshay Sharma, research director at Gartner, the NFV market is still in its early stages. But he said more and more carriers are likely to embrace NFV over the coming year as a way to protect their subscriber bases from over-the-top (OTT) rivals like Google and Skype.

"I think the cat is out of the bag," Sharma said. "For telcos, their biggest fear factor is being a bit pipe to the over-the-tops, like Google Voice, Skype, Hulu and Netflix. The over-the-top guys have already embraced the cloud. They are innovating. So part of this is also really a telco initiative."

Sharma said Cisco's biggest strength in the NFV market is its "end-to-end" service provider story, ranging from carrier-grade routing to SDN service orchestration. That said, Cisco still needs to build out its portfolio in other areas like Voice over LTE, where, Sharma said, rivals like Alcatel, Erickson and Nokia excel.

Sudhir Verma, Chief Technology Officer at Force 3, a Crofton, Md.-based solution provider and Cisco partner, said that, given the heavy carrier focus around NFV, Cisco's ESP launch won't have a significant impact on its channel -- at least not yet.

"At the moment there is not much play for typically channel VARs," Verma wrote in an email to CRN. "However, as the use cases for SDN expand, and start to spill over to enterprise networking, it will be an opportunity for VARs to beef up their solution delivery capabilities around SDN. The true differentiation will move away from price/line card to true consultative services and expertise around SDN."

While NFV is still in its early days, Gartner's Sharma said it's definitely a market that networking vendors like Cisco need to attack. The pressure for these vendors to make a move, he said, is intensified by the fact that those over-the-top companies like Google and Facebook have embraced cheaper, whitebox alternatives to proprietary networking hardware on their journey to virtualization and the cloud.

"Everyone can say they are a leader at this point, because it's still new," Sharma said of the rush of NFV announcements this week. "But I think everyone has a different twist to the equation and they are all leveraging the strengths that they have."