Server virtualization market leader VMware Inc., fresh off a CEO shuffle, emphatically embraced network virtualization and software defined networking by announcing its intent to purchase startup Nicira Networks Inc. for $1.2 billion.
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"VMware on multiple occasions has acknowledged its need to invest more in network technology in order to push cloud computing and virtualized data centers to the next level. In fact, at VMworld last year [now former VMware CEO Paul] Maritz said, 'We've got virtualization on the compute side fairly well-defined, but the greatest inhibitor remaining to us getting to the next stage of cloud capabilities is optimization of the network and optimization of storage,'" recalls Mike Spanbauer, service director for Business Technology & Software at Current Analysis Inc.
During that show, VMware also announced Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN), a Layer 2 tunneling technology that proposed to eliminate the virtual local area network, or VLAN, limits that can cripple a virtual environment.
"[VXLAN] was only a first step," Spanbauer said. VMware has worked hard with major networking vendors like Cisco Systems Inc., Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc. to evolve its networking technology, including VXLAN, vShield and its own vSwitch, but it had "nothing that would have ... made it perfect for software defined networking. If there was any skepticism as to how they get from their vSwitch architecture to software defined networking compliance and a fully enabled virtualized switch, this removes any questions."
Nicira's flagship product Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) creates an abstraction layer between a physical network and the virtual switches deployed on hypervisor hosts. It uses controller software to provision and manage network services for virtual server workloads regardless of the underlying network hardware. NVP achieves this by deploying its own flavor of the Open vSwitch on host servers. It's unclear how the competing virtual switch technologies from Nicira and VMware will coexist as Nicira's technology is absorbed into VMware. However, VMware says it is committed to staying on course with all of Nicira's technology.
VMware will remain committed to an open ecosystem for cloud architecture, network virtualization and software defined networks, said Bogomil Balkansky, VMware's senior vice president of cloud infrastructure products
Nicira founder and Chief Technology Officer Martin Casado emphasized this point in a blog post announcing the VMware deal. "Together we will be able to accelerate the delivery of a complete suite of software defined networking products across all hypervisors and cloud stacks," he wrote.
More on Nicira and network virtualization
For a small, five-year-old company, Nicira has a long reach into a number of revolutionary networking technologies. Its founders invented OpenFlow, which kicked off the surge of interest in software defined networking. It started the Open vSwitch project, an open source alternative to VMware's distributed virtual switch. It's also leading the Quantum project within OpenStack, the networking API that allows OpenStack to orchestrate networks in a cloud computing environment.
The Nicira acquisition furthers VMware's vision of a software-defined data center, according to Balkansky. "We are firm believers that the software-defined data center will have all significant domains virtualized," he said. "The next logical step for the entire industry is to get to virtualized networks, storage and security. Nicira is a logical extension of that strategy."
"What's more, networking customers need a single solution that spans multiple hypervisors and multiple clouds," Balkansky said. "Some of our customers who may have standardized on vCloud Director, for multiple reasons, have pods of other hypervisors. And we see customers taking advantage of public clouds that are not built on VMware technologies. The onus is on us to help customers manage the cloud through a single pane of glass. When it comes to networking, it makes sense to have a single network control plane across the entire data center. It doesn't make sense to have isolated silos that aren't communicating with each other. Nicira gives us a great extension that helps us get closer to a single control plane for the network."
Nicira already has a relatively impressive list of customers who have deployed NVP in production, including Fidelity, eBay, NTT and AT&T.
The Nicira acquisition will close some time in the second half of 2012. Regardless of when the close is, the networking world will be paying closer attention to VMware's annual customer conference VMworld in San Francisco next month.
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