Category Archives: Wireless Networks

For Huawei and ZTE, Suspicions Persist

About two weeks ago, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing on “the national-security threats posed by Chinese telecom companies doing business in the United States.” The Chinese telecom companies called to account were Huawei and ZTE, each of which is keen to expand its market reach into the United States.

It is difficult to know what to believe when it comes to the charges leveled against Huawei and ZTE. The accusations against the companies, which involve their alleged capacity to conduct electronic espionage for China and their relationships with China’s government, are serious and plausible but also largely unproven.

Frustrated Ambitions

One would hope these questions could be settled definitively and expeditiously, but this inquiry looks be a marathon rather than a sprint. Huawei and ZTE want to expand in the U.S. market, but their ambitions are thwarted by government concerns about national security.  As long as the concerns remain — and they show no signs of dissipating soon — the two Chinese technology companies face limited horizons in America.

Elsewhere, too, questions have been raised. Although Huawei recently announced a significant expansion in Britain, which received the endorsement of the government there, it was excluded from participating in Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN). The company also is facing increased suspicion in India and in Canada, countries in which it already has made inroads.

Vehement Denials 

Huawei and ZTE say they’re facing discrimination and protectionism in the U.S.  Both seek to become bigger players globally in smartphones, and Huawei has its sights set on becoming a major force in enterprise networking and telepresence.

Obviously, Huawei and ZTE deny the allegations. Huawei has said it would be self-destructive for the company to function as an agent or proxy of Chinese-government espionage. Huawei SVP Charles Ding, as quoted in a post published on the Forbes website, had this to say:

 As a global company that earns a large part of its revenue from markets outside of China, we know that any improper behaviour would blemish our reputation, would have an adverse effect in the global market, and ultimately would strike a fatal blow to the company’s business operations. Our customers throughout the world trust Huawei. We will never do anything that undermines that trust. It would be immensely foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage.

Let me be clear – Huawei has not and will not jeopardise our global commercial success nor the integrity of our customers’ networks for any third party, government or otherwise. Ever.

A Telco Legacy 

Still, questions persist, perhaps because Western countries know, from their own experience, that telecommunications equipment and networks can be invaluable vectors for surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities. As Jim Armitage wrote in The Independent, telcos in Europe and the United States have been tapped repeatedly for skullduggery and eavesdropping.

In one instance, involving the tapping  of 100 mobile phones belonging to Greek politicians and senior civil servants in 2004 and 2005, a Vodafone executive was found dead of an apparent suicide. In another case, a former head of security at Telecom Italia fell off a Naples motorway bridge to his death in 2006 after discovering the illegal wiretapping of 5,000 Italian journalists, politicians, magistrates, and — yes — soccer players.

No question, there’s a long history of telco networks and the gear that runs them being exploited for “spookery” (my neologism of the day) gone wild. That historical context might explain at least some of the acute and ongoing suspicion directed at Chinese telco-gear vendors by U.S. authorities and politicians.

With Latest Moves, HP Networking Responds to Customers, Partners, Competitors

Although media briefings took place yesterday in New York, HP officially announced new networking  products and services this morning based on its HP FlexNetwork Architecture.

Bethany Mayer, senior VP and general manager of HP Networking, launched proceedings yesterday, explaining that changing and growing requirements, including a shift toward server-to-server traffic (“east-west” traffic flows driven by inexorable virtualization) and the need for greater bandwidth, are overwhelming today’s networks. Datacenter networks aren’t keeping pace, bandwidth capacity in branch offices isn’t where it needs to be, there is limited support for third-party virtualized appliances, and networks are straining to accommodate the proliferation of mobile devices.

Quoting numbers from the Dell’Oro Group, Mayer said HP continues to take market share from Cisco in switching, with HP gaining share of about 3.8 percent and Cisco dropping about 6.5 percent. What’s more, Mayer cited data from analyst firm Robert W. Baird. indicating that 75 percent of enterprise-network purchase discussions involve HP. Apparently Baird also found that HP is influencing terms or winning deals about 33 percent of the time.

The Big Picture

Saar Gillai, vice president of HP’s Advanced Technology Group and CTO of HP Networking, followed with a presentation on HP Networking’s vision. Major trends he cited are virtualization, cloud computing, consumerization of IT, mobility, and unified communications. Challenges that accompany these trends include complexity, management, security, time to service, and cost.

In summary, Gillai said that the networks installed at customer sites today just weren’t designed to address the challenges they’re facing. To reinforce that point, Gillai provided a brief history of enterprise application delivery that took us from the 60s, when we had mainframes, through the client-server era and the Web-based applications of the 90s through to today’s burgeoning cloud environments.

He explained that enterprise networks have evolved along with their application delivery models.  Before, they were relatively static (serving employees onsite, for the most part), with well-defined perimeters and applications that were limited qualitatively and quantitatively. Today, though, enterprise networks must accommodate not only connected employees, but also connected customers, partners, contractors, and suppliers. The perimeter is fragmented, the network distributed, the applications mobile (even in the data center with virtualization), client devices (such as smartphones and tablets) proliferating, and wireless LANs, the public cloud and the Internet also prominently in the picture.

Connecting Users to Services

What’s the right approach for networks to take? Gillai says HP is advancing toward delivering networks that focus on connecting users to the services they need rather than on managing infrastructure. HP’s vision of enterprise-network architecture conceives of a pool of virtualized resources where managing and provisioning are done.  This network has a top layer of management/provisioning, a layer below inhabited by a control plane, and then a layer below that one comprising physical network infrastructure. In that regard, Gillai drew an analogy with server virtualization, with the control plane functioning as an abstraction layer.

With talk of a management layer sitting above a control plane that rides atop physical infrastructure, the HP vision seems strikingly similar to the defining principles of software-defined networking as realized through the OpenFlow protocol.

OpenFlow: It’s About the Applications

On OpenFlow, however, Gillai was guardedly optimistic, if not a little ambiguous. Although noting that HP has been an early proponent of OpenFlow and that the company sees promise in the technology, Gillai said the critical factor to OpenFlow’s success will be determined by the applications that run on it. HP is interested in those applications, but is less interested in the OpenFlow controller, which it does not see as a point of differentiation.

Gillai is of the opinion that the OpenFlow hype has moved considerably ahead of its current reality. He said OpenFlow, as a specific means of enabling software-defined networking, is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. He also said considerable work remains to be done before OpenFlow will be suitable for the enterprise market. Among the issues that need to be resolved, according to Gillai, is support for IPv6 and the “routing problem” of having a number of controllers communicate with each other.

On the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), the private non-profit organization whose first goal is to create a switching ecosystem to support the OpenFlow interface, Gillai suggested that the founding and board members — comprising Deutsche Telekom, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Verizon, and Yahoo — have a clear vision of what they want OpenFlow to achieve.

“If the network could become programmable, their life will be great,” Gillai said of the ONF founders, all of whom are service providers with vast data centers.

Despite Gillai’s reservations about OpenFlow hype, he indicated that he believes “interesting applications” for it should begin emerging within the next 12 to 24 months. He also said that it “would not be big surprise” if HP were to leverage OpenFlow for forthcoming control-plane technology.

ToR Switch for the Data Center

As for the products and services announced, let’s begin in the data center, seen by all the major networking vendors as a lucrative growth market as well as venue for increasingly intense competition.

HP FlexFabric solutions for the data center include the new 10-GbE HP 5900 top-of-rack (ToR) switch and the updated HP 12500 switch series.

HP says the new HP 5900 series of 10-GbE ToR switches provides up to 300 percent greater network scalability while reducing the the number of logical devices in the server access layer by 50 percent, thereby decreasing total cost of ownership by 50 percent.

Lead Time and Changes to Product Naming

The switch is powered by the HP Intelligent Resilient Framework (IRF), which allows four HP 5900 switches to be virtualized so that they can operate as a single switch. The HP 5900 top-of-rack switch series is expected to be available in Q1 2012 in the United States with a starting list price of $38,000.

It bears noting that HP typically refrains from announcing switches this far ahead of release data. That it has announced the HP 5900 ToR switch six months before it will ship would appear to suggest both that customers are clamoring for a ToR switch and also that competitors have been exploiting the absence of such a switch in HP’s product portfolio. Although the 5900 isn’t ready to ship today, HP wants the world to know it’s coming soon.

HP says its HP 12500 switch series benefits from improved network resiliency and performance  as a result of  the addition of the updated HP IRF technology. The switch provides full IPv6 support, and HP says it doubles throughput and reduces network recovery time by more than 500 times. The HP 10500 campus core switch is available now worldwide starting at $38,000.

You might have noticed, incidentally, something different about the naming convention associated with new HP switches. HP has decided that, as of new, its networking products will just have numbers rather than alphabetical prefixes followed by numbers. This has been done to simplify matters, for HP and for its customers.

FlexCampus Moves 

On the campus front, new HP FlexCampus offerings include the HP 3800 stackable switches, which HP says provide up to 450 percent higher performance. HP also is offering a new reference architecture for campus environments that unifies wired and wireless networks to support mobility and high-bandwidth multimedia applications. The HP 3800 line of switches is available now worldwide starting at $4,969.

Although HP did not say it, at least one of its primary competitors has cited a lack of HP reference architectures for customers, particularly for campus environments. HP clearly is responding.

HP also unveiled virtualized services modules for the HP 5400zl and 8200zl switches, which it claims are the first in the industry to converge blade servers at the branch into a network infrastructure capable of hosting multiple applications and services. The company claims its HP Advanced Services zl Module with VMware vSphere 5 and HP Advanced Services zl Module with Citrix XenServer deliver a 57-percent cut in power consumption and a 43-percent reduction in space relative to competing products. Available now worldwide, the vSphere HP Advanced Series zl Module with VMware vSphere 5 (including support and subscription, 8GB of RAM) starts at $5,299. The HP Advanced Services zl Module with Citrix XenServer (including support and subscription, 4GB of RAM) starts at $4,499.

Emphasis on Simplicity and Evolution

HP also rolled out HP FlexManagement with integrated mobile network access control (NAC) in HP Intelligent Management Center (IMV) 5.1 to streamline enterprise access for mobile devices and to protect against mobile-application threats. HP Intelligent Management Center 5.1 is expected to be available in Q1 2012 with a list price of $6,995.

Also introduced are new services to facilitate migration to IPv6 and new financing to allow HP’s U.S-based channel partners to lease HP Networking products as demonstration equipment.

Key words associated with this slate of HP Networking announcements were “evolutionary” and “simplification.” As the substance and tone of the announcements suggest, HP Networking is responding to its customers and partners — and also to its competitors — closing gaps in its portfolio and looking to position itself to achieve further market-share gains.

Discouraged in US, Huawei Invests Heavily in European Enterprise Push

As we watch Huawei invest heavily and ramp up for a sustained enterprise-networking push in Europe, the Chinese network-equipment provider, which made its name and fortune in telecommunications gear before expanding to mobile devices and enterprise infrastructure, remains conspicuous by its relative absence in the USA.

That’s not how Huawei planned it, of course. The company has made successive bids to establish a meaningful beachhead in the US, and each time it was turned back on national-security grounds.

Thwarted at Every Turn

There was its joint $2.2-billion takeover bid, as a minority player, with Bain Capital for 3Com, its former joint-venture partner in H3C, an acronym for Huawei 3Com. That came to naught when the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) discouraged the prospective buyers from pursuing the deal because of concerns about Huawei’s potential access to Tipping Point and 3Com security technologies. Concerns about the US government’s disposition to Huawei also torpedoed the Chinese company’s efforts to acquire Motorola’s wireless-network business and software vendor 2Wire, even though Huawei reportedly bid at least $100 million more than the successful acquirer in each case.

Since then, Huawei was warned off an acquisition of assets belong to 3Leaf, a cloud-software provider. Last, but perhaps not least from Huawei’s perspective, it has been effectively prevented from making headway in its sale of wireless base stations and other telecommunications infrastructure to America’s leading wireless operators, including Sprint Nextel.

While Huawei has made sales to smaller US service providers, it seems effectively locked out of sales to top-tier wireless operators. Understandably, that limits its growth in the US market, making displacement of incumbent vendors impossible.

Aiming for Enterprise Revenue of $7 Billion Next Year

As such, it’s no wonder Huawei looks to other parts of the world as it rolls out an aggressive plan to grow its new enterprise business to sales of $7 billion next year, from just $2 billion last year and $4 billion this year. By 2015, Huawei sees its enterprise business generating revenue of $15 billion to $20 billion.

That’s a heady growth target, and Huawei clearly is focusing on its domestic market in China, as well as emerging economies in Asia and South America, as well as strong growth in Australia and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA).

I wouldn’t want to say that Huawei has given up on the US market — I don’t think Huawei gives up on anything — but it clearly recognizes political reality and will focus elsewhere for the time being.

For Cisco, Good News and Bad News

For Cisco and other enterprise-networking vendors with significant market share in the United States, that’s good news. The news might not be as good in Europe, where Huawei clearly is girding for intensive engagement with customers and channel partners, including those now in other camps.

Cisco obviously benefits, though it is not alone, if Huawei remains constrained or otherwise discouraged from moving aggressively into the US domestic market. Conversely, however, there is a danger that China, which seems to be influenced at least in part by Huawei and ZTE’s strategic imperatives (see recent developments in Libya), might make life more difficult for Cisco in China if Huawei’s hardships in the US persist.

Although Cisco seems to have stayed on the good side of Chinese authorities hitherto, circumstances and situations are subject to change. These developments, like so many others in a networking market that is now surprisingly fluid, bear watching.

Attention Shifts to Cavium After Broadcom’s Announced Buy of NetLogic

As most of you will know by now, Broadcom announced the acquisition of NetLogic Microsystems earlier this morning. The deal, expected to close in the first half of 2012, involves Broadcom paying out $3.7 billion in cash, or about $50 per NetLogic (NETL) share. For NetLogic shareholders, that’s a 57-percent premium on the company’s closing share price on Friday, September 9.

Sharp Premium

The sharp premium suggests a couple possibilities. One is that Broadcom had competition for NetLogic. Given that Frank Quattrone’s investment bank, Qatalyst Partners, served as an adviser to NetLogic, it’s certainly possible that a lively market existed for the seller. Another possibility is that Broadcom wanted to make a preemptive strike, issuing a bid that it knew would pass muster with NetLogic’s board and shareholders, while also precluding the emergence of a competitive bid.

Either way, both companies’ boards have approved the deal, which now awaits regulatory clearance and an approbatory nod from NetLogics’ shareholders.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Broadcom provided an official rationale for the move:

Deal Rationale

“The acquisition meaningfully extends Broadcom’s infrastructure portfolio with a number of critical new product lines and technologies, including knowledge-based processors, multi-core embedded processors, and digital front-end processors, each of which offers industry-leading performance and capabilities. The combination enables Broadcom to deliver best-in-class, seamlessly-integrated network infrastructure platforms to its customers, reducing both their time-to-market and their development costs.”

Said Scott McGregor, Broadcom’s president and CEO:

“This transaction delivers on all fronts for Broadcom’s shareholders — strategic fit, leading-edge technology and significant financial upside. With NetLogic Microsystems, Broadcom is acquiring a leading multi-core embedded processor solution, market leading knowledge-based processors, and unique digital front-end technology for wireless base stations that are key enablers for the next generation infrastructure build-out. Broadcom is now better positioned to meet growing customer demand for integrated, end-to-end communications and processing platforms for network infrastructure.”

“Today’s transaction is consistent with Broadcom’s strategic portfolio review process and with our focus on value creation through disciplined capital allocation while delivering best-in-class platforms for customers in the fastest growing segments of the communications industry.”

Sensible Move for Broadcom

Indeed, the transaction makes a lot of sense for Broadcom. Even though obtaining NetLogic’s technology for wireless base stations undoubtedly was a key business driver behind the deal, NetLogic addresses other markets that will be of value to Broadcom. Some of NetLogic’s latest commercial offerings are applicable to data- plane processing in large routers, security appliances,  network-attached storage and storage-area networking, next-generation cellular networks, and other communications equipment. The deal should Broadcom bolster its presence with existing customers and perhaps help it drive into some new accounts.

NetLogic’s primary competitors are Cavium Networks (CAVM) and Freescale Semiconductor (FSL). Considering Broadcom’s strategic requirements and the capabilities of the prospective acquisition candidates, NetLogic seems to offer the greatest upside, the lowest risk profile, and the fewest product overlaps.

Now the market’s attention will turn to Cavium, which was valued at $1.51 billion as of last Friday, before today’s transaction was announced, but whose shares are up more than seven percent in early trade this morning.

What Cisco and Huawei Have in Common

Cisco and Huawei have a lot in common. Not only has Huawei joined Cisco in the enterprise-networking market, but it also has put down R&D roots in Silicon Valley, where it and Cisco now compete for engineering talent.

The two companies have something else in common, too: Both claim their R&D strategies are being thwarted by the US government.

Cisco Hopes for Tax Holiday

It’s no secret that Cisco would like the Obama Administration to deliver a repatriation tax holiday on the mountain of cash the company has accumulated overseas. The vast majority of Cisco’s cash — more than $40 billion — is held overseas. Cisco is averse to bringing it back home because it would be taxed at the US corporate rate of 35 percent.

Cisco would prefer to see a repatriation tax rate, at least for the short term, of a 5.25-percent rate. That would allow Cisco, as well as a number of other major US technology firms, to bring back a whopping war chest to the domestic market, where the money could be used for a variety of purposes, including R&D and M&A.

Notwithstanding some intermittent activity, Cisco’s R&D pace has decelerated.  Including the announced acquisition of collaboration-software vendor Versly today, Cisco has announced just four acquisitions this year. It announced seven buys in 2010, and just five each in 2009 and 2008. In contrast, Cisco announced 12 acquisitions in 2007, preceded by nine in 2006 and 12 in 2005.

Solid Track Record

Doubtless the punishing and protracted macroeconomic downturn has factored into Cisco’s slowing pace of M&A activity. I also think Cisco has lost some leadership and bench strength on its M&A team. And, yes, Cisco’s push to keep money offshore, away from US corporate taxes, is a factor, too.

Although Cisco is capable of innovating organically, it historically has produced many of its breakthrough products through inorganic means, namely acquisitions. Its first acquisition, of Crescendo Communications in 1993, ranks as its best. That deal brought it the family of Catalyst switches, a stellar group of executive talent, and eventual dominance of the burgeoning enterprise-networking market.

Not all Cisco acquisitions have gone well, but the company’s overall track record, as John Chambers will tell you, has been pretty good. Cisco has a devised cookbook for identifying acquisition candidates, qualifying them through rigorous due diligence, negotiating deals on terms that ensure key assets don’t walk out the door, and finally ensuring that integration and assimilation are consummated effectively and quickly.  Maybe Cisco has gotten a bit rusty, but one has to think the institutional memory of how to succeed at the M&A game still lives on Tasman Drive.

Acute Need for M&A

That brings us to Cisco’s overseas cash and the dilemma it represents. Although developing markets are growing, Cisco apparently has struggled to find offshore acquisition candidates. Put another way, it has not been able to match offshore cash with offshore assets. Revenue growth might increasingly occur in China, India, Brazil, Russia, and other developing markets, but Cisco and other technology leaders seem to believe that the entrepreneurial innovation engine that drives that growth will still have a home in the USA.

So, Cisco sits in a holding pattern, waiting for the US government to give it a repatriation tax holiday. Presuming that holiday is granted, Cisco will be back on the acquisition trail with a vengeance. Probably more than ever, Cisco needs to make key acquisitions to ensure its market dominance and perhaps even its long-term relevance.

Huawei Discouraged Repeatedly

Huawei has a different sort of problem, but it is similarly constrained from making acquisitions in the USA.  On national-security grounds, the US government has discouraged and prevented Huawei from selling its telecommunications gear to major US carriers and from buying US-based technology companies. Bain Capital and Huawei were dissuaded from pursuing an acquisition of networking-vendor 3Com by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) in 2008. Earlier this year, Huawei backtracked from a proposed acquisition of assets belonging to 3Leaf, a bankrupt cloud-computer software company, when it became evident the US government would oppose the transaction.

Responding to the impasse, Huawei has set up its own R&D in Silicon Valley and has established a joint venture with Symantec, called Huawei Symantec, that structurally looks a lot like H3C, the joint venture that Huawei established with 3Com before the two companies were forced to go their separate ways. (H3C, like the rest of 3Com, is now subsumed within HP Networking. Giving HP’s apparent affinity for buying companies whose names start with the number 3 — 3Com and 3Par spring to mind — one wonders how HP failed to plunder what was left of 3Leaf.)

Still, even though Huawei has been forced to go “organic” with its strategy in North America, the company clearly wants the opportunity to make acquisitions in the USA. It’s taken to lobbying the US government, and it has unleashed a charm offensive on market influencers, trying to mitigate, if not eliminate, concerns that it is owned or controlled by China’s government or that it maintains close ties with the China’s defense and intelligence establishments.

Waiting for Government’s Green Light

Huawei wants to acquire companies in North America for a few reasons.  For starters, it could use the R&D expertise and intellectual property, though  it has been building up an impressive trove of its own patents and intellectual property. There are assets in the US that could expedite Huawei’s product-development efforts in areas such as cloud computing, data-center networking, and mobile technologies. Furthermore, there is management expertise in many US companies that Huawei might prefer to buy wholesale rather than piecemeal.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of brand acceptance and legitimacy. If the US government were to allow Huawei to make acquisitions in America, the company would be on the path to being able to sell its products to US-based carriers. Enterprise sales — bear in mind that enterprise networking is considered a key source of future growth by Huawei — would be easier in the US, too, as would be consumer sales of mobile devices such as Android-based smartphones and tablets.

For different reasons, then, Cisco and Huawei are hoping the US government cuts them some slack so that each can close some deals.

Bit-Business Crackup

I have been getting broadband Internet access from the same service provider for a long time. Earlier this year, my particular cable MSO got increasingly aggressive about a “usage-based billing” model that capped bandwidth use and incorporated additional charges for “overage,” otherwise known as exceeding one’s bandwidth cap.  If one exceeds one’s bandwidth cap, one is charged extra — potentially a lot extra.

On the surface, one might suppose the service provider’s intention is to bump subscribers up to the highest bandwidth tiers. That’s definitely part of the intent, but there’s something else afoot, too.

Changed Picture

I believe my experience illustrates a broader trend, so allow me elaborate. My family and I reached the highest tier under the service provider’s usage-based-billing model. Even at the highest tier, though, we found the bandwidth cap abstemious and restrictive. Consequently, rather pay exorbitant overages or be forced to ration bandwidth as if it were water during a drought, we decided to look for another service provider.

Having made our decision, I expected my current service provider to attempt to keep our business. That didn’t happen. We told the service provider why we were leaving — the caps and surcharges were functioning as inhibitors to Internet use — and then set a date when service would be officially discontinued. That was it.  There was no resistance, no counteroffers or proposed discounts, no meaningful attempt to keep us as subscribers.

That sequence of events, and particularly that final uneventful interaction with the service provider, made me think about the bigger picture in the service-provider world. For years, the assumption of telecommunications-equipment vendors has been that rising bandwidth tides would lift all boats.  According to this line of reasoning, as long as consumers and businesses devoured more Internet bandwidth, network-equipment vendors would benefit from steadily increasing service-provider demand. That was true in the past, but the picture has changed.

Paradoxical Service

It’s easy to understand why the shift has occurred. Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., has explained the phenomenon cogently and repeatedly over at his blog. Basically, it all comes down to service-provider monetization, which results from revenue generation.

Service providers can boost revenue in two basic ways: They can charge more for existing services, or they can develop and introduce new services. In most of the developed world, broadband Internet access is a saturated market. There’s negligible growth to be had. To make matters worse, at least from the service-provider perspective, broadband subscribers are resistant to paying higher prices, especially as punishing macroeconomic conditions put the squeeze on budgets.

Service providers have resorted to usage-based billing, with its associated tiers and caps, but there’s a limit to how much additional revenue they can squeeze from hard-pressed subscribers, many of whom will leave (as I did) when they get fed up with metering, overage charges, and with the paradoxical concept of service providers that discourage their subscribers from actually using the Internet as a service.

The Problem with Bandwidth

The twist to this story — and one that tells you quite a bit about the state of the industry — is that service providers are content to let disaffected subscribers take their business elsewhere. For service providers, the narrowing profit margins related to providing increasing amounts of Internet bandwidth are not worth the increasing capital expenditures and, to a lesser extent, growing operating costs associated with scaling network infrastructure to meet demand.

So, as Nolle points out, the assumption that increasing bandwidth consumption will necessarily drive network-infrastructure spending at service providers is no longer tenable. Quoting Nolle:

 “We’re seeing a fundamental problem with bandwidth economics.  Bits are less profitable every year, and people want more of them.  There’s no way that’s a temporary problem; something has to give, and it’s capex.  In wireline, where margins have been thinning for a longer period and where pricing issues are most profound, operators have already lowered capex year over year.  In mobile, where profits can still be had, they’re investing.  But smartphones and tablets are converting mobile services into wireline, from a bandwidth-economics perspective.  There is no question that over time mobile will go the same way.  In fact, it’s already doing that.

To halt the slide in revenue per bit, operators would have to impose usage pricing tiers that would radically reduce incentive to consume content.  If push comes to shove, that’s what they’ll do.  To compensate for the slide, they can take steps to manage costs but most of all they can create new sources of revenue.  That’s what all this service-layer stuff is about, of course.”

Significant Implications

We’re already seeing usage-pricing tiers here in Canada, and I have a feeling they’ll be coming to a service provider near you.

Yes, alternative service providers will take up (and are taking up) the slack. They’ll be content, for now, with bandwidth-related profit margins less than those the big players would find attractive. But they’ll also be looking to buy and run infrastructure at lower prices and costs than did incumbent service providers, who, as Nolle says, are increasingly turning their attention to new revenue-generating services and away from “less profitable bits.”

This phenomenon has significant implications for consumers of bandwidth, for service providers who purvey that bandwidth, for network-equipment vendors that provide gear to help service providers deliver bandwidth, and for market analysts and investors trying to understand a world they thought they knew.

Is Li-Fi the Next Wi-Fi?

The New Scientist published a networking-related article last week that took me back to my early days in the industry.

The piece in question dealt with Visible Light Communication (VLC), a form of light-based networking in which data is encoded and transmitted by varying the rate at which LEDs flicker on and off, all at intervals imperceptible to the human eye.

Also called Li-Fi — yes, indeed, the marketers are involved already — VLC is being positioned for various applications, including those in hospitals, on aircraft, on trading floors, in automotive car-to-car and traffic-control scenarios, on trade-show floors, in military settings,  and perhaps even in movie theaters where VLC-based projection might improve the visual acuity of 3D films. (That last wacky one was just something that spun off the top of my shiny head.)

From FSO to VLC

Where I don’t see VLC playing a big role, certainly not as a replacement for Wi-Fi or its future RF-based successors, is in home networking. VLC’s requirement for line of sight will make it a non-starter for Wi-Fi scenarios where wireless networking must traverse floors, walls, and ceilings. There are other room-based applications for VLC in the home, though, and those might work if device (PC, tablet, mobile phone), display,  and lighting vendors get sufficiently behind the technology.

I feel relatively comfortable pronouncing an opinion on this technology. The idea of using light-based networking has been with us for some time, and I worked extensively with infrared and laser data-transmission technologies back in the early to mid 90s. Those were known as free-space optical (FSO) communications systems, and they fulfilled a range of niche applications, primarily in outdoor point-to-point settings. The vendor for which I worked provided systems for campus deployments at universities, hospitals, museums, military bases, and other environments where relatively high-speed connectivity was required but couldn’t be delivered by trenched fiber.

The technology mostly worked . . . except when it didn’t. Connectivity disruptions typically were caused by what I would term “transient environmental factors,” such as fog, heavy rain or snow, as well as dust and sand particulate. (We had some strange experiences with one or two desert deployments). From what I can gather, the same parameters generally apply to VLC systems.

Will that be White, Red, or Resonant Cavity?

Then again, the performance of VLC systems goes well beyond what we were able to achieve with FSO in the 90s. Back then, laser-based free-space optics could deliver maximum bandwidth of OC3 speeds (144Mbps), whereas the current high-end performance of VLC systems reaches transmission rates of 500Mbps. An article published earlier this year at theEngineer.com provides an overview of VLC performance capabilities:

 “The most basic form of white LEDs are made up of a bluish to ultraviolet LED surrounded by a yellow phosphor, which emits white light when stimulated. On average, these LEDs can achieve data rates of up to 40Mb/sec. Newer forms of LEDs, known as RGBs (red, green and blue), have three separate LEDs that, when lit at the same time, emit a light that is perceived to be white. As these involve no delay in stimulating a phosphor, data rates in RGBs can reach up to 100Mb/sec.

But it doesn’t stop there. Resonant-cavity LEDs (RCLEDs), which are similar to RGB LEDs and are fitted with reflectors for spectral clarity, can now work at even higher frequencies. Last year, Siemens and Berlin’s Heinrich Hertz Institute achieved a data-transfer rate of 500Mb/sec with a white LED, beating their earlier record of 200Mb/sec. As LED technology improves with each year, VLC is coming closer to reality and engineers are now turning their attention to its potential applications.”

I’ve addressed potential applications earlier in this post, but a sage observation is offered in theEngineer.com piece by Oxford University’s Dr. Dominic O’Brien, who sees applications falling into two broad buckets: those that “augment existing infrastructure,” and those in which  visible networking offers a performance or security advantage over conventional alternatives.

Will There Be Light?

Despite the merit and potential of VLC technology, its market is likely to be limited, analogous to the demand that developed for FSO offerings. One factor that has changed, and that could work in VLC’s favor, is RF spectrum scarcity. VLC could potentially help to conserve RF spectrum by providing much-needed bandwidth; but such a scenario would require more alignment and cooperation between government and industry than we’ve seen heretofore. Curb your enthusiasm accordingly.

The lighting and display industries have a vested interest in seeing VLC prosper. Examining the membership roster of the Visible Light Communications Consortium (VLCC), one finds it includes many of Japan’s big names in consumer electronics. Furthermore, in its continuous pursuit of new wireless technologies, Intel has taken at least a passing interest in VLC/Li-Fi.

If the vendor community positions it properly, standards cohere, and the market demands it, perhaps there will be at least some light.

Handicapping Dell Networking Acquisition Candidates

There’s a strong possibility that Dell will make a networking acquisition in the near future. In the spirit of fun, I thought it would be mildly entertaining, and perhaps edifying — though I don’t want to push it — to handicap the field of potential candidates, providing morning-line odds for each vendor.

Brocade 5-2

I addressed the Dell-Brocade scenario in a previous post.

Even though there are reasons Dell might not pursue Brocade, the company is a logical candidate and should be considered the favorite. As any gambler can tell you, however, favorites don’t always win, and there’s a chance Dell will look elsewhere in the field for its networking play.

Juniper Networks 7-1

Dell resells Juniper’s enterprise switches and security boxes under its own PowerConnect brand, but a lot of what Juniper offers, particularly routers to carriers and service providers, isn’t a Dell priority.  What’s more, Juniper would prefer to remain independent, has other major partnerships (especially with IBM), and believes it is well placed to take share from Cisco at carriers and service providers as virtualization proliferates and cloud computing takes hold.

Last, but probably not least, Juniper’s market capitalization, at more than $16 billion, makes it prohibitively expensive. Dell’s cash hoard amounts to more than $14 billion, but I doubt it wants to break the bank  on a single transaction.

Aruba Networks 10-1

Dell sells Aruba’s wireless networking solutions under the Dell PowerConnect W-Series. Aruba is seen to benefit from continued growth in enterprise wireless networking. Still, Dell is probably happy to leave the relationship as it stands.

Enterasys 12-1

The two companies were active partners several years back, but not much is happening today. Not likely.

 Arista Networks 7-1

Michael Dell is enthusiastic about the prospects for 10GbE and cloud computing. Arista probably isn’t willing to sell, but my guess is that Dell — seeing Arista’s gains against Cisco in financial services, with more possibly to come in other verticals — would be interested.

That said, Arista seems destined for an IPO. The company’s CEO Jayshree Ullal has said she is asked often by customers about Arista’s exit strategy, and she replies that the company’s plan is to remain independent.

Extreme Networks 6-1

Extreme and Dell have an existing partnerships, with the former’s switches supporting Dell’s EqualLogic iSCSI SAN arrays. Extreme also has the 10GbE  switching of which Michael Dell is so enamored.

Extreme isn’t an industry leader, and it’s still struggling for traction in a competitive marketplace, but it’s active in many verticals where Dell is strong — including healthcare — and Dell might feel it could do relatively well with such a cost-effective purchase. (Extreme’s market capitalization is $314 million.) It could be a good way Dell to make a modest entry into networking, though it would create complications with existing partners.

 Force10 Networks  7-2

Dell partners with Force10 for Layer 3 backbone switches and for Layer 2 aggregation switches. Customers that have deployed Dell/Force10 networks include eHarmony, Salesforce.com, Yahoo, and F5 Networks.

Again, Michael Dell has expressed an interest in 10GbE and Force10 fits the bill. The company has struggled to break out of its relatively narrow HPC niche, placing increasing emphasis on its horizontal enterprise and data-center capabilities. Dell and Force10 have a history together and have deployed networks in real-word accounts. That could set the stage for a deepening of the relationship, presuming Force10 is realistic about its market valuation.

 F5 Networks 8-1

Dell is the largest reseller of F5 products, and the relationship clearly is working for both companies. Dell resells not only F5’s flagship BIG-IP application-traffic controller, but also the company’s ARX file-virtualization appliance.

Dell and F5 have a great partnership, but I think Dell believes F5 isn’t going anywhere — it will likely remain independent, despite the perennial rumors that it could be acquired — and will agree to leave well enough alone.

Riverbed Technology 8-1

Riverbed and Dell are partners, with Riverbed’s Steelhead WAN-optimization appliances and Dell EqualLogic PS Series iSCSI SAN arrays deployed together in disaster-recovery and centralized data-backup applications.

The relationship works, Dell has other near-term priorities, and an acquisition of Riverbed would be relatively pricy and still leave Dell with networking gaps.

Any Others? 

It’s possible Dell will look elsewhere, perhaps at an emerging niche player, so I’ll leave the field open for late entrants. If you think any should be included, let me know.