Q&A—F5 Networks' James Feger discusses the impact of software, VNFs, analytics

network earth
F5 Networks James Feger said service providers are well positioned to provide more value to their customers through new services and applications. (Pixabay)

Service providers can bring value, such as analytics, 5G and edge compute, to customers that hyperscale companies can't deliver, according to F5 Networks' James Feger.

During an interview last week in Denver at Light Reading's NFV and SDN conference, Feger spoke to FierceTelecom about the value that service providers bring to their customers through capabilities, such as analytics, and the importance of providing enterprise customers the right tools to be successful.

Also in this Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, Feger, vice president and general manager of F5's service provider business, talked about 5F Network's preconfigured virtual network functions (VNFs) and the use of software.

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FierceTelecom: One of the constant refrains we've heard over the past few years is that VNFs need to be more like Legos and not snowflakes. The VNF Manager that F5 Networks announced back in August only works with F5's preconfigured VNFs. Does F5 plan to onboard other companies' VNFs to work with its VNF Manager?

James Feger: We started off with essentially intelligent traffic management and firewalling as the preconfigured package because that's the majority of what we see getting deployed. I don't want to say you get one shot at it, but you really don't get more than a shot or two at making this right. Because if you disrupt a deployment, you disrupt customers environment by saying, "Hey, we can do all these things and here's all these features." You got to make sure you're setting your customer up for success. We purposely have opened it up the way it is.

We can easily add and change our own stuff and integrate with other people's stuff and that's our next step. We're in some development for that now, but we've purposely launched it the way it is just to make sure we're setting our customer set up for success. The thing (VNF Manager) can do a million things. I don't want to give them a million things and end up having some negative impact. We fully intend to be able to integrate. It's built into the platform. It's not like it's new development. It's already there.

FierceTelecom: What type of view should a carrier provide an enterprise customer? Do enterprise customers want access to all of that network information?

Feger: I think that the idea is having the flexibility to decide how you want to engage your end user. If I'm a service provider and I'm looking to build a more robust services offering, one of the most important things that I need to feel successful about when I'm talking to my end user is, "Hey, I care about your traffic. We can report to you what your applications look like."

One of the beautiful things about F5 is that F5 has been successful in the enterprise space. They are able to manage and intelligently report on any application in the world. As service providers are transitioning to what I call an application delivery infrastructure, we are positioned to help those service providers with that tool set. I think it's one of the unique opportunities that we have because of the experience that we already have with applications and the world has gone to software. We know all of that.

FierceTelecom: We know service providers are embracing software, how about their enterprise customers?

Feger: Enterprises are consuming applications whether they're in the cloud, in their own data center, or hosted somewhere inside of a telco cloud system themselves. It's all applications. Being able to intelligently manage those applications as a service provider for your end user, I think is a very valuable proposition.

FierceTelecom: We tend to mostly talk about large telcos, but is it the same for cable providers and the smaller Tier 2 and Tier 3 providers?

Feger: Absolutely, all of them. The use cases are slightly different. Let's be honest with ourselves there. Wireless companies are focused on the 5G economy, the 5G ecosystem and where you have interesting dynamics there is the portability and the migration aspect.

You talk about elastic. My gosh, when something's not tethered, that's elastic. Being able to actually take applications, push them onto end devices, whether they're cars or street sensors or wearables, whatever it is, they're still running applications and those applications are still hitting the 5G infrastructure. Those applications still need traffic management. They still need firewalls and security services. They still need policy enforcement such as "Excuse me. Is this device really supposed to be here? How do I manage that?" Again, it's another tool set that the wireless carriers can leverage, and they need that. They're looking for that.

When you switch over to the more wireline and fixed line carriers, regardless of if it's traditional telco or cable and again honestly, regardless of tier one, Tier 2 or Tier 3, those challenges are all similar. They're just delivered across a different infrastructure, the connected aspect.

However, they will also participate in the same ecosystem, the same economy that we're moving to with data as the bits and bytes are proliferating, the devices are proliferating and that means applications, and end points are proliferating. You have to be able to manage that effectively and you have to be able to manage that through automation. If you try to scale with our existing approach to networking and virtual services, you're going to run out of people. You have to start relying on the machines to be more intelligent and make more decisions and truly manage it for you. The people need to manage the machines. The machines need to manage the infrastructure.

FierceTelecom: I spoke to Vodafone's Fran Heeran recently and he said the industry needed to focus on "cloudification" instead of NFV. Do you agree?

Feger: I've used that "cloudification" word myself when I was over at CenturyLink. I don't necessarily want to get hung up on a NFV versus cloud-native debate. I think we have to be ready for all of it honestly. That's one of my takeaways from this show. Now, I've stepped back from the carrier world and reflected a little bit. As carriers, I would say that we were asking for the same things, but we're asking for them to look and feel slightly different, right? Because of that, it's created these inner app debates. It's created this "Where is the management layer?" debate.

FierceTelecom: What about service providers' ability to do analytics across their end-to-end networks, from the core to the edge? That's something that the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) companies can't do.

Feger: What better analytics than to actually be able to abstract them straight from the application? Well, we see every application at 5F. It's what we do. We're Layer 7 inspection and enforcement. If you can inspect and you can enforce and you can manipulate packets, you can also report.

As for the service providers, I think they are primed. They are absolutely primed because they carry the world's applications. One of the things I've started thinking about is people talk about the service providers and what is it that they are going to do with all of these applications that flow across their infrastructure? I said, "Well, they're there. They're right in the middle of all the data." When someone asks, "Well, what's the service provider doing?" I say, "They carry the world's applications."