Late last week, I had the opportunity to speak with David Fratura, Alcatel-Lucent’s senior director of strategy for cloud solutions, about his company’s new foray into cloud computing, CloudBand, which is designed to give Alcatel-Lucent’s carrier customers a competitive edge in delivering cloud services to their enterprise clientele and — perhaps to a lesser extent — to consumers, too.
Like so many others in the telecommunications-equipment market, Alcatel-Lucent is under pressure on multiple fronts. In a protracted period of global economic uncertainty, carriers are understandably circumspect about their capital spending, focusing investments primarily on areas that will result in near-term reduced operating costs or similarly immediate new service revenues. Carriers are reluctant to spend much in hopeful anticipation of future growth for existing services; instead, they’re preoccupied with squeezing more value from the infrastructure they already own or with finding entirely new streams of service-based revenue growth, preferably at the lowest-possible cost of market entry.
Big Stakes, Complicated Game
Complicating the situation for Alcatel-Lucent — as well as for Nokia Siemens Networks and longtime market wireless-gear market leader Ericsson — are the steady competitive advances being made into both developed and developing markets by Chinese telco-equipment vendors Huawei and ZTE. That competitive dynamic is putting downward pressure on hardware margins for the old-guard vendors, compelling them to look to software and services for diversification, differentiation, and future growth.
For its part, Alcatel-Lucent has sought to establish itself as a vendor that can help its operator customers derive new revenue from mobile software and services and, increasingly, from cloud computing.
Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen is banking on those initiatives to save his job as well as to revive the company’s growth profile. Word from sources close the company, as reported first by the Wall Street Journal, is that the boardroom knives are out for the man in Alcatel’s big chair, though Alcatel-Lucent chairman Philippe Camus felt compelled to respond to the intensifying scuttlebutt by providing Verwaayen with a qualified vote of confidence.
With Verwaayen counting on growth markets such as cloud computing to pull him and Alcatel-Lucent out of the line of fire, CloudBand can be seen as something more than the standard product announcement. There’s a bigger context, encompassing not only Alcatel-Lucent’s ambitions but also the evolution of the broader telecommunications industry.
CloudBand, according to a company-issued press release, is designed to deliver a “foundation for a new class of ‘carrier cloud’ services that will enable communications service providers to bring the benefits of the cloud to their own networks and business operations, and put them in an ideal position to offer a new range of high-performance cloud services to enterprises and consumers.”
In a world where everybody is trying to contribute to or be the cloud, that’s a tall order, so let’s take a look at the architecture Alcatel-Lucent has brought forward to create its “carrier cloud.”
CloudBand comprises two distinct elements. First up is the CloudBand Management System, derived from research work at the venerable Bell Labs, which delivers orchestration and optimization of services between the communications network and the cloud. The second element is the CloudBand Node, which provides computing, storage, and networking hardware and associated software to host a wide range of cloud services. Alcatel-Lucent’s “secret sauce,” and hence its potential to draw meaningful long-term business from its installed base of carrier customers, is the former, but the latter also is of interest.
Hewlett-Packard, as part of a ten-year strategic global agreement with Alcatel-Lucent, will provide converged data-center infrastructure for the CloudBand nodes, including compute, storage, and networking technologies. While Alcatel-Lucent has said it can accommodate gear from other vendors in the nodes, HP’s offerings will be positioned as the default option in the CloudBand nodes. Alcatel-Lucent’s relationship with HP was intended to help “bridge the gap between the data center and the network,” and the CloudBand node definitely fits within that mandate.
Virtualized Network Elements in “Carrier Clouds”
By enabling operators to shift to a cloud-based delivery model, CloudBand is intended to help service providers market and deliver new services to customers quickly, with improved quality of service and at lower cost. Carriers can use CloudBand to virtualize their network elements, converting them to software and running them on demand in their “carrier clouds.” As a result, service providers presumably will derive improved utilization from their network resources, saving money on the delivery of existing services — such as SMS and video — and testing and introducing new ones at lower costs.
If carriers embrace CloudBand only for this reason — to virtualize and better manage their network elements and resources for more efficient and cost-effective delivery of existing services — Alcatel-Lucent should do well with the offering. Nonetheless, the company has bigger ambitions for CloudBand.
Alcatel-Lucent has done market research indicating that enterprise IT decision makers’ primary concern about the cloud involves performance rather than security, though both ranked highly. Alcatel-Lucent also found that those same enterprise IT decision makers believe their communications service providers — yes, carriers — are best equipped to deliver the required performance and quality of service.
Helping Carriers Capture Cloud Real Estate
Although Alcatel-Lucent talks a bit about consumer-oriented cloud services, it’s clear that the enterprise is where it really believes it can help its carrier customers gain traction. That’s an important distinction, too, because it means Alcatel-Lucent might be able to help its customers carve out a niche beyond consumer-focused cloud purveyors such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and even Microsoft. It also means it might be able to assist carriers in differentiate themselves from infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) leader Amazon Web Services (AWS), which became the service of choice for technology startups, and from the likes of Rackspace.
As Alcatel-Lucent’s Fratura emphasized, many businesses, from SMBs up to large enterprises, already obtain hosted services and software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings from carriers today. What Alcatel-Lucent proposes with CloudBand is designed to help them capture more of the cloud market.
It just might work, but it won’t be easy. As Ray Le Maistre at LightReading wrote, cloud solutions on this scale are not a walk on the beach or a day at the park (yes, you saw what I did there). What’s more, Alcatel-Lucent will have to hope that a sufficient number of its carrier customers can deploy, operate, and manage CloudBand to full effect. That’s not a given, even if Alcatel-Lucent offers CloudBand as managed service and even though it already sells and delivers professional services to carriers.
Alcatel-Lucent says CloudBand will be available for deployment in the first half of 2012. At first, CloudBand will run exclusively on Alcatel-Lucent technology, but the company claims to be working with the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to establish standards to enable CloudBand to run on gear from other vendors.
With CloudBand, Alcatel-Lucent, at least within the content of its main telecommunications-equipment competitors, is seen as having first run at the potentially lucrative market opportunity of cloud enabling the carrier community. Much now will depend on how well it executes and on how effectively its competitors respond to the initiative.
The Carrier Factor
In addition, of course, the carriers themselves are a factor. Although they undoubtedly want to get their hands around the cloud business opportunity, there’s some question as to whether they have the wherewithal to get the job done. The rise of cloud services from Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon was partly a result of carriers missing a golden opportunity. One would like to think they’ve learned from those sobering experiences, but one also can’t be sure they won’t run to prior form.
From what I have heard and seen, the Alcatel-Lucent vision for CloudBand is compelling. It brings the benefits of virtualization and orchestration to carrier network infrastructure, enabling the latter to manage their resources cost-effectively and innovatively. If they seize the opportunity, they’ll save money on their own existing services and be in a great position to deliver range of cloud-based enterprise services to their business customers.
Alcatel-Lucent should find a receptive audience for CloudBand among its carrier installed base. The question is whether those Alcatel-Lucent customers will be able to get full measure from the technology and from the business opportunity the cloud represents.