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PLUMgrid automates virtual network provisioning without the controller

Shamus McGillicuddy

SDN startup PLUMgrid has unveiled a network virtualization platform that automates network service provisioning in data centers by creating an overlay that abstracts the physical network.

Unlike Nicira and some other network virtualization vendors, PLUMgrid eschews the central controller common to many SDN-based overlay architectures. Instead, the company has created a PLUMgrid Director, which performs a supervisor function.

"We don't believe that a controller is the right architecture, where all the data plane elements and applications talk to something in the middle," said Awais Nemat, CEO of PLUMgrid. Instead, PLUMgrid Director "behaves like a supervisor that manages resource contention, registration and other administrative things that need to happen in a system but should never be in the path of network functions."

This allows for greater scalability "because now we can scale the control plane on a per-function basis. I can load new network functions without having to change the controller," said Pere Monclus, PLUMgrid's chief technology officer.

Also unlike Nicira, PLUMgrid is taking a broader approach to data center networking, said Tom Nolle, president and founder of consultancy CIMI Corp. based in Voorhees, N.J. While Nicira focuses on enabling multi-tenancy in virtualized data centers, PLUMgrid is enabling network virtualization for "anything that partitions or segments data center environments."

The PLUMgrid Platform is distributed software that runs on standard servers. The foundation of the product is IO Visor, a distributed fabric overlay that allows IT admins to create "Virtual Domains" where they can load and unload various network functions -- such as switching, routing and Layer 4-7 services -- for various applications and tenants in a data center. PLUMgrid Director coordinates IO Visor and the other components of the platform.

"Think of a Virtual Domain as a complete data center network -- with virtual routers, virtual switches, virtual load balancers -- connected in any way [customers] want them to be connected,"Nemat said. "[A Virtual Domain] is a completely isolated environment that is entirely at their control. They can provision that environment with a single click without having to open up a ticket or waiting three months to get a VLAN provisioned or an IP address provisioned."

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PLUMgrid is one of a small number of overlay players that isn't specifically trying to replicate traditional packet forwarding, Nolle said. "If you look at the overlay players in general, all of them are about connection management, because if you are an overlay player you can't manage traffic. The switches and routers can't see your stuff, so you can't influence forwarding in the real network sense. But what you can do is segment connectivity. You can create virtual overlays on top of other connection protocols like IP or Ethernet. That's what [VMware acquisition] Nicira does, and that's what PLUMgrid does."

Like many SDN vendors, PLUMgrid has an application programming interface (API) framework for plugging the platform into orchestration tools. It ships with an OpenStack plug-in. It also has APIs for integration with third-party Layer 4-7 services. The company is coming to market with an ecosystem of partners who are validated on those APIs, including F5 Networks, Citrix, Check Point Software Technologies, A10 Networks, Zerto, Silver Peak and Palo Alto Networks. Other infrastructure partners include Arista Networks and Ixia.

A new vendor like PLUMgrid needs a broad range of partners to ease the minds of potential customers, said Brad Casemore, research director of Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "[Customers] look at it from all the way up the stack, from the underlying infrastructure to the hypervisor environments, to the Layer 4-7 services and cloud orchestration and management systems. Now there's a difference between getting names into an ecosystem and really getting them to pull through in that ecosystem. The degree to which these partners buy into what PLUMgrid does will be a critical factor in the company's success."

In later releases, PLUMgrid will build deeper integration with hardware vendors, particularly switching vendors like Arista. "We see it evolving into tighter integration touch points, from a visibility, analytics, operations and maintenance standpoint," Nemat said.

PLUMgrid is debuting with several significant customer references. AT&T has deployed the technology in its Palo Alto lab; Silicon manufacturer Cavium is using the software in its testing and development environment; and Oppenheimer also offered an endorsement.


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