When ADVA bought Overture Networks, one of the six companies who I believe has a full-spectrum NFV solution that can make a business case, I was critical of the fact that they seemed to be positioning Overture as a limited extension to the carrier Ethernet business. Now they’ve made their positioning clearer with an announcement that DartPoints, a supplier of on-premises micro-datacenters, has selected the ADVA Ensemble NFV products as a key element in their service plans. This goes a long way toward establishing ADVA’s commitment to NFV, and it makes an important point about NFV too.

One of the most difficult challenges that NFV, in its vCPE guise, faces is getting out of the CPE edge device and into the cloud. The business case for deploying agile CPE is only slightly related to that of NFV, and the technology for NFV is overkill if all your VNFs are going to do is squat in the customer edge device and wait to be changed around. NFV technology is valuable when VNFs have to be more spread around.

DartPoints is an example of a logical pathway to expand the number of places where VNFs could be hosted. Instead of requiring operators to jump from the customer premises directly to a cloud data center somewhere in a metro area, DartPoints provides a facility micro-datacenter that’s located in multi-tenant facilities and can host, securely, the virtual functions for a group of tenants. It’s a very logical idea given that 1) many operators already run fiber to major office buildings and campus locations to provide service to the tenants and 2) most multi-site businesses have at least some if not all their operations in a multi-site location.

The application is based on a hardened ADVA server that hosts the functions, a software platform created by the Ensemble Connector software instance that represents each tenant and provides a common deployment and management platform for VNFs, and the Ensemble Orchestrator for deployment and lifecycle management. Because the hardware/server from ADVA is multi-tenant, the cost is shared across the users of the micro-datacenter and that makes the VNFs more attractive.

It may be that the most interesting thing about the micro-datacenter concept is the fact that it’s a jump to an edge-distributed multi-tenant cloud for VNF hosting. One of the problems I’ve identified with NFV progression from the virtual CPE model is that the logical next step is to start building a central resource pool to offload functions from the edge. That’s obviously the next move from a financial standpoint, but it creates long data paths and it also creates the risk that all your VNFs are now stranded in the center of each metro area, when many NFV applications (mobile services, content delivery, and IoT to name a few) are better served if you host them at the edge.

Could micro-datacenters, located in multi-tenant facilities, help solve this? For business services, they certainly could, but I think they could also help solve them for other services as well. Operators could build on the deployments of micro-datacenters used to support building tenants to support nearby cell sites, deploy content caches, and do a lot of other critical stuff. The result could be an NFV deployment that puts the power of VNFs where it has to be to support the largest number of valuable services.

Even if operators don’t see the benefits of micro-datacenters right away, what’s to prevent somebody like DartPoints from taking the next step down the line? The DartPoints model might be the most critical single thing that’s come along for NFV because it might point to a way for OTT-like deployment of NFV, a way to create multi-service edge hosting points that anyone might then take advantage of in a service sense. It’s especially interesting since shopping malls and food courts are multi-tenant facilities and could easily justify a micro-datacenter. From there, the concept could expand both in terms of the number of facilities and the number of supported services.

For ADVA, the critical thing here is that this is a real NFV application and not just VNF-squatting. We have a very small number of NFV services today that can credibly claim to exercise a large portion of even the functionally limited ETSI specifications. Here’s one that can exercise all the components needed to make an NFV business case, and by doing so it proves that a full-scale NFV business case can be made, at least in a technical sense.

I don’t know if we’re going to hear much about the mobile and content implications of this announcement even though we’re in the midst of MWC, but I think that the story could be really interesting to MVNOs as well as to the prime mobile operators. There is nothing in the mobile application of NFV more important than getting those hosting points out there toward the network edge, because without that you have to compromise things like the delivery of content, the utility of virtual RAN strategies, or the agility of IoT-related control of facilities. All these things need a short delivery path.

I had a chance to chat with ADVA’s business lead on the Ensemble unit, where Overture went within ADVA, and there seems to be a commitment to pursue Ensemble NFV in the most aggressive way. This is a darn good start because it leads to so many follow-on services and applications, and because it showcases the broad orchestration and management support that Ensemble has had all along. ADVA might take steps now that would start to separate the NFV pretenders from the players who can really do something.

It doesn’t hurt that ADVA is primarily a fiber player either. Metro infrastructure for mobile services is mostly fiber deployment of capacity combined with hosted IMS/EPC/RAN elements. The DartPoints model demonstrates that can be done by taking advantage of convenient multi-tenant facilities. Many of whom, by the way, already have mobile antenna systems on their roofs.

I can’t say for sure that ADVA will be as aggressive as they could be with this, but I do think that an emerging model of NFV deployment that takes real and useful steps toward the optimum model of NFV data centers could be very powerful. I’ll be watching how this plays out.

Tom Nolle, President of CIMI Corp
CIMI Corp Blog