Cisco executives: Disaggregation of tech is easy, business cases not so much

Cisco executives Sean Welch, left, and Jonathan Davidson pose in front of some of their company's Remote PHY gear at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2018 in Atlanta. (FierceTelecom)

Disaggregation, the splitting of network elements into smaller parts, isn't that hard from a technology standpoint, according to two Cisco executives, but the business case around it is.

The concept of disaggregation isn't exactly cutting-edge, but the web-scale service providers—such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix—made it a key element in ramping up their services while also being able to change them on the fly to meet network demands.

Cisco's Jonathan Davidson

On the other hand, service providers, both cable and telco, built their networks up over many years on more vertical, siloed models.

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But along with cloud-native, disaggregation is a hot topic across the telecom industry. At this week's SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Atlanta, Jonathan Davidson, who was named senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Service Provider Business in August, and Sean Welch, vice president and general manager, service provider for cable, said technology-wise, the box for disaggregation has been checked.

"Disaggregation from the technology perspective is not complicated," Welch said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "Disaggregation from a business model perspective is actually going to be the bigger challenge. The business model around how do you actually enable this to work in processes that our customers are comfortable with, is often the more challenging aspect to it."

One of the problems related to disaggregation is somewhat analogous to the calls that cable operators receive when an over-the-top video service is down. Customers call the cable operator because it's the broadband provider instead of the provider of the OTT service.

"When you buy hardware and software from any vendor, you're getting, usually for free, this thing called systems integration," Welch said. "They made sure that the hardware and software worked together. They also make sure that if it breaks that there's a support model around how to make sure that it gets working again.

"So when you go down that disaggregation path, making software work on hardware actually is just one part of the equation. Understanding who is going to perform this systems' integration function, is that going to be the customer? Is the customer going to hire a third party? Is the customer going to hire one of the two vendors, the hardware or the software vendor, to do the systems' integration? And then who do you call? All of those broader topics are things that need to be solved.

"We're committed to working with not only our customers, but with the industry to make this happen. But because of all those additional business issues, what we've seen so far is that the number of customers who actually want to go down that disaggregation path is actually relatively small today."

Davidson said that every major business inside of Cisco publicly announced last year that they were embracing the disaggragation model. Davidson said Cisco sent a large contingent to the TIP Summit two weeks ago in London to support the disaggregation of optical infrastructure.

"We've also been very vocal in the past about enabling our software—from a routing perspective—to work on third-party equipment as well," Davidson said. "So all that has been very public on how we're embracing and then helping to move the entire industry forward."

Similar to NFV, there are startups and system integrators, often from large vendors such as Cisco and Ericsson, that are more than happy to step in to make those disaggregation elements function properly. Large service providers, including AT&T, are able to handle the heavy lifting of disaggregation on their own, but smaller carriers may not have the in-house expertise to do so.

While Welch doesn't see much traction for disaggregation in the short term, there are plenty of industry initiatives afoot. In addition to Facebook's TIP (Telecom Infra Project), the Open Networking Foundation, which is driven by its service provider members, is also working on disaggregation across the telecom industry.

On the telco side, AT&T, BT and Verizon have openly supported disaggregation across white box routers, servers and gateways, but that speaks to Welch and Davidson's point that the disaggregation as a technology is a done deal, although Welch said getting software to work on x86 servers with third-party or merchant silicon takes work.

Welch said OpenRPD was a prime example of disaggregating the network while moving toward a more software-centric approach to enable integration between different elements. Cisco first came up with the Remote PHY Devices initiative prior to putting it into CableLabs two years ago as OpenRPD. 

Cisco's cloud-native broadband router

Welch and Davidson also provided more details on Cisco's cloud-native router that was first announced in June. At Expo, Cisco said that the router, which is called cnBR, was deployed in Mobridge, South Dakota, by Midco.

RELATED: Midco takes Cisco's cloud-native router on a test drive

Part of the appeal of cloud-native is it gives carriers the ability to split up, or disaggregate, the components into smaller pieces, or microservices, that can scale up or down as needed. With a cloud-native router, a service provider can cover a market like Mobridge with one blade while cutting down on dedicated hardware, powering, facilities space, and maintenance.

"It's very scalable architecture that allows them [service providers] to reshape their network and do things like hub site consolidation, increases the performance of their network because they're driving digital much deeper to the edge of the network, and it allows them to get a higher level of performance, and higher level modulation at the edge of the network," Welch said. "That's all very important stuff, but most importantly is the operational aspects that the cloud-native broadband router brings.

"It's built on modern software architectures. It's all API driven. Our ability to repair defects, and add features at service level velocity is just unmatched. We've not seen this in the physical appliance space ever. This is really very powerful stuff that we've witnessed with web scalers because they can do this very, very quickly across their infrastructures."

Davidson said that the cloud-native router also breaks the paradigm of service providers needing to deploy a large amount of infrastructure to generate a new potential service, which also includes a heavy investment up front. Once that's done, service providers are faced with making money over a long period of time while carrying the investment forward.

"With the cloud native broadband router, you're able to actually bring the investment and the revenue generated by that investment much closer to each other," Davidson said. "So it's not a massive investment and then revenue over time, it's 'I get to invest simultaneously with actually generated revenue.' That is a huge value add to the cable company."