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14 July 2020

Nokia throws down significant challenge to Cisco in webscale router market

Nokia may have hit a low point in its bedrock mobile RAN business, with setbacks to its 5G platform still hitting confidence in the vendor, but it has been more successful than arch-rival Ericsson is expanding its commercial offering beyond telcos. We have often covered its development of cloud platforms and flexible networks to support enterprises and private operators. Another important area of targeted expansion is the webscale space, where Nokia has been building on switch and router assets acquired with Alcatel-Lucent to move beyond carriers.

Its ‘petabit’ router and underlying processor architecture, unveiled last year, is one example of a product that, while it could be adopted by a high end telco, is primarily aimed at cloud infrastructure companies and their huge requirement for data center switching capacity. This market is also in Nokia’s sights, along with operators and enterprises, with the launch of its new network operating system (NOS) and router portfolio.

The Nokia Service Router Linux (SR Linux) NOS and Fabric Service Platform (FSP) were actually co-developed with several webscale companies, including Apple, which is the first publicly announced customer and will be deploying the technology in some of its cloud data centers, starting in Denmark.

Adam Bechtel, networking lead at Apple, commented: “We regularly upgrade our data center equipment with technology to increase efficiency and reduce energy consumption. Using Nokia’s new system will enable better networking and routing capabilities in our Viborg, Denmark facility.”

“We’ve been working on this for over two years and the approach that we took was to work with the webscalers,” Steve Vogelsang, CTO of IP and optical networks at Nokia, told TelecomTV. “We’d been working with them (Google, Azure, AWS, Apple)  for quite some time in our IP routing and optical transport business – helping them build their IP/optical WAN networks so we got to know them quite well. We realised they couldn’t find a platform that had the software infrastructure that they needed.”

The NOS comes with a toolkit for implementing intent-based automation and operations, the key buzzwords in the webscale world. Once again, Nokia is going head-to-head with the dominant Cisco in this market, as well as Juniper and Arista. Only the petabit product can compete with Cisco’s high end products, and now Nokia is fleshing out its intent-based software capabilities to challenge the US leader from another angle.

Intent-based networking, and an NOS to run a fully software-defined network (SDN), are key to help large-scale data center operators to scale up their capacity while remaining agile to adapt to the changing requirements of 5G or Industrie 4.0 use cases. The FSP aims to automate the design, implementation, and operation of data center fabrics. “FSP is really there for any cloud builder that doesn’t necessarily have a complete intent-based operational toolset for the network today,” Nokia said.

To make it easier to test and prototype network fabrics before deploying them to a data center, Nokia has implemented a digital sandbox which creates a digital twin of the network.”

Vogelsang said in an interview: “We’ve got an opportunity to improve data center networking for all cloud builders. This is not only targeting the webscalers, but the tier two public clouds, software service providers, enterprises, and of course the telcos as they build out the telco cloud.”

However, with many telcos backing away from deploying their own cloud and becoming keen to rely on third party platforms, the real crown jewels will be the webscalers. Vogelsang added: “We created an open solution for large-scale cloud companies that for the first time enables them to use software and automation. We have built an extensive set of routing to scale the public Internet for opportunities at the edge and on-premise cloud. We have combined these two opportunities to build the next generation of data center products. There is a big pool of capex that has not previously had dedicated network products.”

The company claims that the Nokia SR Linux is the first fully microservices-based NOS, and because it is based on technology developed for the embedded OS in the company’s existing carrier-grade routers, it is “battle-hardened”.

The SR Linux NDK (NetOps development kit) allows applications to be integrated through tools like remote procedure call and protobuf, without recompiling. It allows customers to build their own apps that run natively on the switch, and Vogelsang claimed to SDxCentral: “Nothing like that has ever been done before.”

The main trends which Nokia believes will drive mass adoption of these new data center switch technologies are Industrie 4.0 and 5G-enabled edge computing.

Another more conventional Nokia customer, BT, was quoted in the press announcements. The UK telco’s group chief architect, Neil McRae, said: “Nokia’s new data center fabric solution promises to provide full programmability with deep telemetry, along with a modern operational toolkit to drive the extreme automation and scaling of our telco cloud, which is critical to drive future 5G services.”

Equinix, and Turkcell also expressed interest in the new offerings.

Nokia also introduced a new line of data center switching hardware, the 7250 and 7220 IXR platforms. These families include top-of-rack switches, spine switches, super-spine switches, and modular chassis spine switches, with support for 400, 100, 50, 40, 25, 10 and 1 Gbps.