Cisco's Davidson makes the case for service provider disaggregation - Q&A

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins takes the stage at last month's Cisco Live! event in San Diego. (FierceTelecom)(Mike Robuck/FierceTelecom)

While Cisco has embraced the concept of disaggregation, service providers need to carefully consider how they will implement it.

Disaggregation, the splitting of network elements into smaller parts, helps service providers break down their vertical service silos and enable the use of white box devices that work with other vendors' software.


Jonathan Davidson, Cisco

During an interview at last month's Cisco Live event in San Diego, Cisco's Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president and general manager of the company's Service Provider Business unit, said that every major division within Cisco supported disaggregation as part of the company's over-arching intent-based networking strategy.

In this Q&A with FierceTelecom, which was edited for clarity and length, Davidson defines disaggregation and what it means to service providers.

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FierceTelecom: How can service providers benefit from disaggregation?

Jonathan Davidson: Well, first of all, it's good to have a discussion on the multiple types of disaggregation. The first one that people usually jump to is 'Let's talk about separating the hardware from the network operating system, and then buy white boxes and put the network operating system on that white box.' That's one aspect of disaggregation.

Another one is to actually disaggregate the software itself so you're only deploying the software that you need on that device. Instead of deploying the full set of applications and services, you're just deploying the pieces and the elements that you need, and therefore, you're only paying for the pieces or the elements that you need. So, that's another aspect of desegregation as well.

FierceTelecom: That would include virtual customer premises (vCPE) equipment?

Davidson: You could think of that as one use case for that, but it also could be as simple as 'Hey, I have a router and I used to have all of these services with BGP and MPLS and all these different capabilities like BNG (border network gateways) and now I only need to have BGP on it and ISIS (intermediate system to intermediate system routing.) I don't care about the rest of it.'

So I can get the abilities, just get the pieces of software that I want, which operationally means I have a smaller footprint for that software, which means it consumes less memory, and there's all the benefits that you would get from that type of approach.

FierceTelecom: So. why haven't more service providers embraced the use of white boxes with disaggregated software?

Davidson: The majority of white boxes are still tied to the largest web scale companies, and they're pretty public about who's gone white box from that perspective. That's still where the majority of the numbers are.

When you think about disaggregation, I always like to explain that if you have a network operating system and it's integrated with a piece of hardware, you're actually getting the system integration work for free. But if you want to take a network operating system and then put it on a third-party platform, you still have to do the system integration work and someone has to pay for that, and typically that would be whoever wants to deploy it.

Now that's a conversation that we have with service providers. We're happy to sell our software to work on top of white boxes, but if it's a new piece of hardware that we haven't integrated with before, they're going to have to pay us to integrate into that piece of hardware. That means that they have to be able to amortize that cost across whatever end number of devices or platforms they're buying. So they have to then do the calculus of whether or not it makes sense and if they're going to get the cost savings that they think they're going to get from that.

FierceTelecom: Have white box deployments been hampered by the lack of network operating systems that are available today?

Davidson: Building network operating systems is hard. If it were easy, everybody would have already started using something else. But, there are two things. One, the scale is very difficult. Quality is very difficult, and these inherently are critical infrastructures so you need to make sure that you've got a full lifecycle approach to the software.

You also have to have someone who is willing to support the software at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, and that's our business model. This is what we're built to do as a company, and we have certainly won a decent number of white box hardware (deals) with our IOS XR operating system, but by far a large majority of our customers go down the fully integrated path."