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Coming soon: The app store for virtualization

Apr 21, 20154 mins

Get ready for the enterprise equivalent of the app store.

The constant push to increase productivity and profit has historically led commercial enterprises to drive some of our world’s most significant technology advances. It was the enterprise push for further development of desktop computer processing that changed the personal computer from a hobbyist activity to a mission-critical tool. Commercial organizations deployed fiber for dedicated computer networks while the rest of us were just getting used to DSL. And the cellphone? It began its life as tool to keep business sales teams and execs more productive.

But something happened during the smartphone revolution. What made the smartphone the critical invention of the 21st century was the ease of application use. Applications became “apps,” and with them came their own marketplace, or “app store.”

Here was a place where you could find an app for all your needs. Want to know where you are or what’s around you? Need a compass, a calendar, a stopwatch or fitness tracker? Want to stream a movie? Download the requisite app, and you’re up and running in seconds.

Suddenly, the cutting edge of technology development was a consumer device that fits in your pocket and can access many of the same applications being used in enterprises around the world. And now the enterprise is in catch-up mode.

Enterprises have typically dealt with application performance and information security concerns through the deployment of specialized hardware appliances for network traffic conditioning functions, such as encryption, WAN optimization, and firewalls. These deployments have allayed those concerns, but these purpose-built appliances are complex to operate, requiring skillsets that are in short supply. Not only that, these appliances are expensive to deploy and a burden to replace once they reach the end-of-lifecycle.

The speed of technological change demands constant upkeep and upgrades. But shrinking IT budgets make it difficult to keep up using today’s hardware-focused model. This is leading to a transformation from reliance on hardware, or on-premise IT, to the adoption of cloud models where hardware functions are virtualized by leveraging the power of software intelligence.

The next logical step is for the enterprise to be able to download and deploy these network functions on-demand. In much the same way the consumer can download a quick game featuring colliding candy, a photo editing application or even a new operating system upgrade, there’s no reason why an enterprise can’t do the same for a virtual hardware function. But for the idea to reach the critical mass required to make a difference, we need the enterprise equivalent of the app store; a marketplace of sorts where the enterprise can go, see what hardware has been virtualized, and download and deploy it as required.

Thankfully, these markets are starting to pop up, and you can see them populated by the network-specific equivalents of apps: Virtualized Network Functions, or VNFs.

For instance, imagine two medical research branches on either coast of the United States that transfer large amounts of data on a daily basis between each other, but also rely on a mirror site to enable disaster recovery. To ensure these two branches are sending data as quickly as possible, it would be ideal to deploy a WAN optimization solution which removes data whitespaces, eliminates excess overhead, and de-duplicates and compresses the information, leading to more efficient transmission with a faster, more stable connection between branches and the mirror site.

But deploying a WAN optimization hardware box takes time and, from a CAPEX perspective, can be prohibitively expensive to a medical research organization where budgets are a constant struggle. What would make sense is for the organization to deploy the VNF version of WAN optimization hardware and pay on a consumption basis.

Soon, they will be able to download this software app from VNF marketplaces. VNFs already exist for security and encryption, edge router technology, network performance testing and analysis, and connection cloaking technology, among others in the pipeline.

The evolving VNF business model is one where enterprises will be able to download any virtualized hardware function on a per-use basis and be up-and-running within minutes, not the days or weeks a hardware based model can consume. The VNF can be deployed, provisioned, upgraded, and managed entirely via software. VNF usage is then billed from according to actual usage.

Enterprises will become far more agile with their network-based operations through the deployments of VNFs. The VNF market is new this year, but is expanding at a rate that will make that future a reality within the next few years. Soon, the enterprise will be back where it once was: ahead of the technology curve and serving the consumer, not chasing it.


With more than 20 years of telecom experience, Mr. Alexander is currently serving as Ciena’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Mr. Alexander has held a number of positions since joining the Company in 1994, including General Manager of Ciena's Transport & Switching and Data Networking business units, Vice President of Transport Products and Director of Lightwave Systems.

From 1982 until joining Ciena, Mr. Alexander was employed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he last held the position of Assistant Leader of the Optical Communications Technology Group. Mr. Alexander is an IEEE Fellow and was the recipient of the IEEE Communications Society Industrial Innovation Award in 2012. He is currently an Associate Editor for the IEEE / OSA Journal of Optical Communications and Networking. He has served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission Technological Advisory Council, as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Lightwave Technology, as a member of the IEEE / LEOS Board of Governors, and was a General Chair of the conference on Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) in 1997.

Mr. Alexander received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been granted 18 patents and has authored a text on Optical Communication Receiver Design as well as numerous conference and journal articles.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Steve Alexander and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.