Juniper Networks (NASDAQ:JNPR, news, filings) announced its TX Matrix Plus multi-chassis core router, and the big buzzphrase that surrounded it with great fanfare is virtualization. By bringing virtualization to the world of routing, Juniper hopes to give its customers the kinds of benefits that virtualization has brought to the processing end of the datacenter business. Juniper is not the only one thinking along these lines, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO, news, filings) is there also. But what does it really mean? That’s a lot less clear to me right now, because it’s not at a stage where we can link the new technology to new products offered by service providers.
When we think of virtualization in the datacenter, the idea is that you can pool raw computing power, bandwidth feeds, power, and maintenance on a common infrastructure, then subdivide it into individual virtual servers for different applications. This is vertical disaggregation, a separation of the application from the platform on which it runs. We understand it well because we can see the product we used to buy – a dedicated server – replaced by a virtual variety.
So if we take the direct analogy into the world of routers, virtualization would allow service providers to buy and sell virtual routers, enabling something akin to a virtual network operator. That’s right, not only can you be fiber free, you can be core-router-free also. LightReading does a great job explaining this concept, yet it leaves me rather unconvinced it will happen that way. Most of the sector has run away from the wholesale business screaming in pain for the last 5 years, and this new technology doesn’t change the underlying contradictions inherent in making your assets less unique. Finding new ways to lease out infrastructure at wholesale rates isn’t something companies like AT&T (NYSE:T, news, filings) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ, news, filings) have been looking for, they only really do it when the FCC makes them.
In order to succeed, virtualization in the world of core routers has to offer something other than a way to re-enter a failed business model. Rather, I think this could be a tool for service providers to simplify their own mishmash of networks that they don’t like to talk about. They could unify the physical infrastructure providing different services over different networks all through virtual routers in the same chassis. They could develop and test new products on new network designs without buying separate equipment. They could subdivide their own businesses into units that use separate virtual network equipment and thus have better profit/loss accountability without sacrificing scale at the equipment level. In other words, this could be a tool for consolidation of networks onto the same equipment, even when those networks remain functionally separate.
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