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An Orchestration Primer for Network Operators

29 Apr 2014 / Nirav Modi

It’s Spring, yes, even in Chicago, and that means it’s the time of year when industry event organizers are trying to separate vendors from their marketing budgets. The only thing more popular at these events than giveaways, hotel bars, and SDN hype seems to be all the talk about orchestration.

Whether at events or at the customer site, I often get asked by customers for a definition of orchestration. It has come up so often, that I thought a blog might be in order.

To define orchestration clearly, it might help to take a step back and look at the evolution of carrier networking over the past 18 months to provide some context. As most know, there have been two transformative technologies that have come to the forefront of late in the network operator space—SDN and NFV. Whether deployed independently or collectively, these technologies stand to enable network transformation that is far beyond a “bigger, faster, and cheaper” variant of the existing hardware-centric infrastructure.

Let’s look at SDN first. Software-defined networking had its birth in the data-center and now extends into the WAN. SDN controllers for WANs have emerged, enabling network virtualization across multiple-vendors, multi-layer management and visualization, constraint-based path computation – or, in the simplest of terms, transformed the WAN into a programmable resource that enables on-demand connectivity between users and their applications.

NFV is related, but clearly different. NFV emerged as a carrier-led initiative (formalized via the ETSI NFV ISG) to improve service innovation and lower costs by virtualizing network functions and allowing them to run on standard COTS servers, instead of purpose-built hardware platforms. It would, however, be a disservice to limit the scope of NFV to just the virtualization of network functions. From an operator perspective, the motivations run far deeper; NFV represents a much larger paradigm. The migration of network functions to COTS HW is just a piece of the puzzle. NFV is also about breaking away from the current static nature of service deployment, manual processes associated with network and service maintenance (e.g. scaling, upgrades) and moving to an agile, dynamic architecture where services are fluid, agile and entirely managed as software.

Both SDN and NFV can stand proudly individually – each aim to solve different problems in carrier networks. However, to enable an agile network and service fabric, as is the vision for many operators, the intelligent coordination of both networking and applications (services) is critical. And that leads up to orchestration.

In the carrier networking space, orchestration is a relatively new term. However, much like SDN, orchestration has been used in the data center and IT space for some time. It generally describes the coordination and automation of a set of operations, through software (DevOps or otherwise), to deploy the virtual and/or physical resources required to run an application.

Though the well-understood telecom terms of “network management” and “OSS” can apply to some orchestration functions, these systems already have well-defined places in the telecom ecosystem. The truth is, orchestrators represent a new reality in transformed, virtualized, and software-controlled carrier networks. As such, they are deserving of their own space and definition.

Because orchestration is currently being used to describe so many different behaviors, in different types of networks, it’s not always clear what one means when the term is used. Adding to the confusion is the fact that a growing number vendors are claiming their product is orchestrating, but no one really knows what anyone else is doing. Sound familiar?

So what does an orchestrator do in a network operator (non data center) context?

Simply put, orchestrators intelligently allocate and coordinate both physical and virtual resources, inclusive of compute, storage, AND the wide area network – helping network operators coordinate and automate the delivery of services from end-to-end. Orchestration must span multiple-domains; carrier networks (WAN, etc.), physical network functions (PNFs) as well as virtualized network functions (VNFs).

Orchestration is about leveraging a dynamic and distributed network and resource fabric to deliver services, connectivity, and applications to users, on-demand, and tailored to the scale specified. Orchestration brings together service-provider, cloud infrastructure and end-users together – in concert.

Consider the following example. Operators are beginning to dip their toes into NFV and are looking to virtualize edge appliances (similar to vCPE) like firewalls or encryption. An orchestration platform can help enable these hybrid services assisting with the automation, management and deployment of all the VNFs, including placement, as well as ensuring the network connectivity across the physical and virtual networks is correctly provisioned to ensure the end-to-end service performs as required.

Orchestrators are the glue that binds physical and virtual resources and the network(s) in-between. They are critical to the success of many operators’ visions for transforming their networks, and they ultimately unite the network, cloud/SDN, and NFV resources into one service fabric.

This won’t be the last time you hear about orchestration, but hopefully, at your next tradeshow or when you’re reading that new press release (as if), you’ll have a better feel for what orchestration is and why it’s important.

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