The communication industry is moving to an open disaggregated, multi-vendor approach. Industry initiatives such as OCP, O-RAN, DDC and TIP are taking that direction. CSPs such as AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink have been advocating their white-box disaggregated approach for quite some time. Transitioning from disaggregated to complete disaggregated networking discusses the benefits of a disaggregated networking model. For this model to succeed vendors need to evolve their approach and build capabilities that will make the multi-vendor disaggregated solution behave like a single-vendor one in terms of reliability, testing, support, etc. Consequently, disaggregated networking does come with some challenges.
Disaggregated Networking Is not without Challenges
Disaggregation clearly implies dealing with disaggregated software and hardware. Regardless of how much software is disaggregated from hardware, it is expected that once the software is installed on the hardware there should be no compatibility issues. However, someone must test and integrate the software with the hardware. This can be a service provider, and ultimately it is the SP/tester that is responsible if something goes wrong with the system in the production network. This is in contrast to traditional routers, where the vendor is responsible for everything. This is not the case with a white box, especially if the service provider is responsible for integrating everything. A few service providers have tried to take on the role of system integrator but quickly realized that it is not practical, and they failed.
More Choices in Hardware Mean More Integration Efforts
White-box provides more choices in hardware, but it also involves dealing with significant integration and testing activities, which can translate to delays in network and service rollouts, affecting time to market new services. The majority of service providers are traditionally risk-averse and would rather focus on creating new products. They are happy to work with the current networking vendors as they get end-to-end solutions and the support should something go wrong.
The Solution Approach Eliminates the Risks of Disaggregated Networking
There is good news for service providers when planning for disaggregated networking: look for a total solution provider rather than a software or a box provider. A starting point is the software vendor, which can be the single point of contact for the end-to-end solution. It is natural fit as most of the value features and problems come from software. In software-based solutions, the software has to lead, so the software vendor needs to take the responsibility to ensure the multi-vendor solution is like the single vendor one in terms of reliability, time to market, support, etc. The software vendor should have already tested and integrated the software with different white boxes and provide choices without the worry of integration and testing. A software vendor can be the total solution provider that eliminates any potential risks with disaggregated networking.
Not Just for Integration, the Solution Provider Is a Complete Network Life-Cycle Partner
Let's face it, it is not just about qualifying the new hardware and integrating software. The network life cycle is much more than that:
- It involves network upgrades so there should be a surety that upgrades go smoothly.
- The network performance in a disaggregated environment should be guaranteed.
- The faults managing/troubleshooting should be done efficiently and quickly. The six 9s reliability of the service provider must be guaranteed. There also needs to be a single line of support (or at least first line of support) for the solution testing and solution expansion (adding more vendor choices to different elements of the solution with its ecosystem of partners: cables, white boxes, add-on services, etc.).
The software vendor, therefore, is responsible for providing these services and has to work hand in hand with the service provider to ensure that the network performs well in all cases. To succeed in this stage, the vendor’s and service provider’s relationship should turn into a partnership. This eliminates any risks for a service provider that is looking for a complete solution with support rather than box vendors.
Software Tools MUST Manage the Disaggregate Cloud as Single Entity Rather than Individual Boxes
Integrating disaggregated devices manually is complex and time-consuming. The network operating system must be able to manage white boxes as a single virtual entity without dealing with hundreds of white boxes individually; otherwise, the system will not be able to scale. Therefore, there must be a well-tested automated framework to test network devices end to end for new features and performance.
Automation and Zero Touch Provisioning Are Key Factors
Each white-box comes with basic software. When a solution is a cluster of white boxes, it becomes more important to load consistent software on all of them in an automated way. All this can be achieved using the zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) feature on disaggregated networking gear. Without ZTP, it would be very difficult to manually bootstrap the system because of the risks of misconfigurations. Thanks to the ZTP feature available on disaggregated systems, it is easy to provision such systems in a real-world environment. Such tools and automation thus become a necessary part of the offering by the software vendor.
Disaggregated Systems Need a Solution Provider Rather than Software or Box Provider
A disaggregated solution requires a solution provider that can provide an end-to-end solution rather than a software or a box provider. A solution provider reduces the risks dealing with separate software and hardware, enabling trust in disaggregated networking solutions. Service providers do not want to be the solution provider; VARs can play the role of system integrator, but the software vendor can take the role of the solution provider so that SPs can concentrate on their business rather than making sure that the solution works.