Cisco said today it will spend $175 million to acquire Tail-F Systems, a start-up specializing in service provider network orchestration software.
Tail-F's chief product is the Network Control System (NCS), which uses YANG modeling tools to maintain a global, real-time view of a network configuration state and network services. NCS uses the YANG models to generate declarative commands for network infrastructure through the NETCONF protocol and other southbound interfaces -- like REST APIS and even OpenFlow -- to program a service provider's network.
NCS can orchestrate multiple segments of service provider networks, from the network core to the mobile edge, and it can do a variety of things, such as programmatically provision VPN services or reconfigure BGP routes. NCS has increasingly been recognized as a tool that can orchestrate and service-chain functions in a Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) environment.
"Tail-F has been really innovative in producing a very flexible platform for doing service orchestration in service provider virtual networking environments," said Paul Parker-Johnson, practice lead, Cloud Computing and Virtual Infrastructure Technologies at ACG Research. "They've built a platform that is really extensible to multiple infrastructure categories, as well as to multiple northbound orchestration environments. In that way, it makes their offering extremely flexible and very well-positioned in terms of supporting programmability in a multi-vendor deployment.
Cisco and other infrastructure vendors have been espousing the virtues of YANG modeling and NETCONF, but few have brought their own products to market.
"We, as well as others, were building, or had this capability … but we just found that the performance of [Tail-F's] orchestration layer was best in class," said Gee Rittenhouse, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Cloud and Virtualization Group. "We had a solution based on open source technology. It's relatively easy to pull together an event manager and message buses and even include some of the models, and the performance is decent. But when it comes to flat-out performance, this was best in class."
Tail-F has been a pioneer in using YANG tools and NETCONF to program and virtualize service provider networks, said Nav Chander, research manager for IDC. AT&T identified Tail-F as one of the companies it is using in its Domain 2.0 initiative for transforming its network with SDN and NFV. Deutsche Telecom is another prominent customer. Some larger web-scale data center companies have also started using the product in their data centers, for delivering large-scale virtual network services, Chander said.
Is Cisco committed to Tail-F as a multi-vendor platform?
One of the strengths of Tail-F is its ability to work with multi-vendor environments. NCS supports products from 70 vendors. Tail-F's customers will want this multi-vendor support to continue.
"The whole value of this platform is based on the advantages that NETCONF and YANG provide, and the simplicity that model provides," Rittenhouse said. "It really behooves Cisco to maintain the openness around [NCS] and have as many people building on those models as we can."
Cisco will focus on keeping Tail-F technology open and standards-based he said. "From an orchestration perspective, we will continue to use this in a way that is completely standards-compliant with the open interfaces found in the ETSI NFV model. We want to make sure those interfaces are respected and kept open. We don't want to close everything and make it proprietary."
"I think it's far too late for [NCS] not to be multi-vendor," Chander said. "I think [Cisco] will have to go with it.
Technology like MPLS has proved that you have to interwork with multiple vendors in a large carrier network, Parker-Johnson said. "[Cisco] has also started to recognize that a greater value of what they bring to customers has to come from the software they deliver. They need to have good service orchestration. They have to be credible as far as doing more than just their own infrastructure."