Dell, HP keep moving to help carriers virtualise their networks

Both companies stand to gain if network functions virtualization upends traditional carrier systems

The next frontier for virtualisation and standard x86 servers is in service-provider networks, and big computing vendors are moving fast to blaze the trail there.

Network functions virtualisation (NFV) is designed to move the back-end processing in carrier networks from dedicated appliances to software that can run across a virtual computing infrastructure. That should mean faster development and deployment of new services for subscribers, plus lower network costs.

NFV is likely to open up carriers' networks to services developed by a broad range of companies, including startups, and could help the carriers compete against Internet companies such as Skype and Google that deliver services over the top of those networks.

But carriers can't move overnight from their entrenched architectures to NFV, and new virtualised network functions for these platforms are just now under development. So Hewlett-Packard and Dell have announced progress toward making a variety of software available to carriers.

HP gave more details about the HP OpenNFV Program it announced in February at Mobile World Congress. The program is up and running now, validating applications from more than 100 software vendors to ensure they can run properly in a virtualised environment and have the kind of reliability carriers demand, said Werner Schaefer, vice-president of HP's NFV business.

That testing involves a reference architecture that HP developed with technology vendors including Intel, Mellanox Technologies, Brocade, SK Telecom and testing vendor Spirent. By including some components that compete with HP's own products such as Brocade virtual service routers, the OpenNFV Program offers carriers a choice, Schaefer said.

"The overall aim of our OpenNFV program is to accelerate the adoption of NFV," he said.

Carriers are exploring NFV in part to save money, so they don't want to invest the time and money to test and validate a long list of virtualised services to run on their networks, Schaefer said. That's where HP's program comes in.

HP has set up labs for OpenNFV Program testing in Houston, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Grenoble, France. It's now joined with partners to open two more labs outside the US, one in Tel Aviv with the Israel Mobile & Media Association, and one in Seoul with SK Telecom. An initial catalog of validated applications should become available within six to eight months, Schaefer said.

Dell also announced its first NFV platform. It's built around Dell servers, storage, networking and software, which can be combined with software from partners. Dell says it's open to working with any vendor that wants to deliver its software on Dell's systems, rather than validating specific software for use with the platform.

Given the early stage of NFV adoption, Dell introduced two starter kits as scaled-down versions of the overall platform that service provider can use for experimentation and proofs of concept. One configuration is based on Dell's PowerEdge R630 1RU rack-mounted servers, and the other on the M1000e blade chassis and new M630 compute blades.

Dell announced a partnership with Red Hat earlier this year to develop NFV and SDN (software-defined networking) applications based on Red Hat's version of the OpenStack open-source cloud platform. That relationship continues, but Red Hat's isn't the only operating system that will be able to run on top of Dell's NFV system, said Jeffrey Baher, head of product and solutions marketing for Dell Networking.

"The goal of the platform is to be able to accept as many different combinations as possible that would sit north of this infrastructure platform offering," Baher said.

The Dell NFV platform and starter kits are available worldwide through Dell and its local sales channels.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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