VMware network virtualization will spell trouble for Cisco, eventually

Jason Edelman

When VMware launched its NSX network virtualization platform at VMworld in August, the industry went abuzz about the battle between long-time partners Cisco and VMware. NSX merges VMware's cloud networking features with Nicira's network virtualization technology -- potentially eliminating the need for Cisco in the mix.

Cisco was one of the only major networking players not listed on the VMware NSX technology partner list, and within two days of the NSX launch, Cisco Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior wrote a blog stating that a software-only approach (like VMware's) would not scale to support high-performance environments. Physical and virtual networks would have to be better integrated, she wrote.

Both VMware and Cisco have diplomatically stated publicly that there is no war and that their partnership will continue, but readers might want to question that. Here is why.

Until now Cisco and VMware had only a minor battle on the virtual switch front, which Cisco managed to stay ahead of. VMware's native virtual switches were playing catch-up to Cisco's Nexus 1000V, which were more intelligent switching platforms. VMware began stepping up its networking game going from virtual switch features to network services with vShield Edge and App. Still, when customers chose to keep VMware's vSwitches deployed, Cisco didn't lose any revenue -- it still continued to sell hardware network switches into the same environments. Everyone remained happy.

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Then VMware acquired Nicira and everything changed.

Why does NSX change the Cisco-VMware relationship?

By integrating the Nicira technology, VMware has a virtual switch platform that surpasses all competitors and provides an end-to-end network virtualization platform and overall framework. Recent additions range from a distributed firewall to increased multi-tenancy capabilities and distributed routing, all as part of an overall controller-based network solution. That controller centrally manages the network, integrating with third-party Layer 4-7 services while increasing network agility for businesses to deploy applications faster. The VMware solution is still all software, so in theory, there will be no net loss of revenue from hardware vendors. This may be true in the short term, but if NSX architects create logical network segments by using overlay technologies such as VXLAN, STT and GRE, they will make the physical network configuration much simpler than it has been in the past -- requiring less complex hardware.

Will simpler lead to cheaper physical networks?

Customers can either deploy NSX over their current network, or they can build out a shiny new data center fabric that provides a fully nonblocking fabric. It will take at least one refresh cycle to see how this plays out. If NSX is deployed as part of a refresh cycle in a traditional Layer 2 or 3 simple fabric without any extra knobs turned, customers may start to look at lower-cost hardware solutions. That's when white-box networking and other simple alternatives may gain wider traction.

For customers that view their networks as business differentiators, that transition time may be closer than it is for the average enterprise shop. When this becomes the case, Cisco and VMware will remain partners in some areas (think Vblock and cloud), but when it comes to data center networking, the two companies will compete for the same budget.

Will Cisco lose revenue if it doesn't integrate with NSX network virtualization?

A slew of network vendors announced that they would terminate VXLAN tunnels in their top of rack (ToR) switches -- essentially turning their components into NSX gateways. Cisco was notably not one of those vendors, but that won't necessarily mean the company will lose a ton of revenue.

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As stated above, the average customer won't rip out their current network and shift to a totally different architecture anytime soon. For those planning to terminate VXLAN tunnels on switches from the likes of Arista and Cumulus, most won't do so on every single ToR switch. It's more practical to see a small number of hardware-enabled switches acting as NSX gateways in a simpler architecture. In that case, the only revenue lost to Cisco in the short term would be from those few gateways. The downside for Cisco will be when customers go for the full refresh and meet a new vendor like Cumulus, simply because they are considering switch providers that integrate with NSX.

Why might VMware falter with NSX network virtualization adoption?

VMware's NSX challenges boil down to the following factors: sales, the channel, certifications and execution. And it just so happens that these are the areas where Cisco dominates. While VMware has a global sales force, how many of those sales reps and engineers are capable of selling network technologies? Going further, how will VMware empower and incent value-added resellers (VARs) and integrators and show them that NSX will differentiate their offerings and produce additional revenue? Will the return-on-investment model make sense for the traditional VAR?

VMware must also understand that network engineers like to learn, train and get certified to differentiate themselves. Cisco has mastered this process better than almost any other IT vendor. Will VMware try to empower the traditional network engineer? If done right, the outcome could be very loyal engineers -- but if not, engineers may never catch on at all.

Ultimately, network engineers and channel partners alike will have one major question: Can the VMware Networking and Security Business Unit execute?

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