10 network virtualization, SDN and data center companies to watch

Ex-Cisco, Sun, Oracle and Symantec execs try their hands at data center start-ups

Management: David Husak, founder and CEO, formerly with 3Com and co-founder of Reva Systems; Ephraim Dobbins, co-Founder and vice president of engineering, formerly with Acme Packet.

Fun fact: The ecommerce portion of the company's website includes items such as a sold out bobblehead of company Husak, as well as a $30 million Plexxi jet.

More information: Plexxi 

Plexxi executives say much of the talk about SDNs and virtual networks these days is off the mark.

Instead of just re-architecting the network to make it more elastic, scalable and controlled through software, they say the network should be orchestrated from the top down, by applications telling the network what resources they need and the network automatically provisioning itself. That's what Plexxi says its switches and software combination enable customers to do. "We view ourselves as building a solution based on an SDN foundation," says Mat Matthews, a co-founder and vice president of product marketing.

The software layer collects information about applications, analyzes what network resources it's using and creates algorithms to predict what will be needed. It takes that information and relays it to the underlying integrated network hardware devices made by Plexxi - mostly switches - that configure the network to the specifications of the applications.

Plexxi has already seen some success in the financial sector, where organizations are looking for ultra low-latency private cloud infrastructures. The company's system is ideal for networks that include a high number of server connectivity points, and for content delivery and big data applications, according to Plexxi. One early customer has created a premium service cloud computing offering that guarantees no two servers are ever more than one hop away from one another, for example.

The company is made of proud Bostonians. On its website, CEO Husak shows his East Coast pride, noting: "The last time there was a shift of this magnitude in enterprise networking, Boston-based companies led the way. And, it's going to happen that way again."

Plumgrid

PLUMgrid

Headquarters: Sunnyvale, Calif.

Founded: 2011

Focus: Network virtualization-plus

Funding: $10.7 million in Series A funding from US Venture Partners and Hummer Winblad Partners

Product availability: First half of 2013

Management: Lot of former Cisco employees and engineers, including Co-founder and CEO Awais Nemat, Co-founder and CTO Pere Monclus, Head of Product Management Valentina Alaria and Vice President of Engineering Lele Nardin

More information: PLUMgrid 

PLUMgrid has issued an open challenge about why the company is called what it's called. When executives reveal details about the company's plans during a launch event in the spring, CEO Nemat plans to hold a drawing for anyone who guesses right and the winner will take home an iPad.

Nemat is also secretive about exactly what the 50-employee company is up to, but has shared some clues. He promises it will be a virtual networking advancement. The problem with many existing solutions, Nemat says, is that they're not able to work on top of existing network gear, requiring a "rip and replace" model.

PLUMgrid's technology, described as an I/O control system for connecting networks, storage, compute and applications, "lives on top of servers as a software layer that protects existing investments, while also providing a path for greenfield investments," Nemat says. PLUMgrid has decided not to be OpenFlow-based, and is instead developing its own network controlling software.

Pluribus

Pluribus Networks

Headquarters: Palo Alto

Founded: 2010

Focus: Hardware-accelerated network virtualization for public/private clouds

Product availability: Limited availability of NetVisor software and Server-Switch hardware, with general availability in Q2

Funding: $42 million from NEA, Menlo Ventures, Mohr Davidow Ventures.

Management: CEO Robert Drost and CTO Sunay Tripathi, both formerly with Sun; Vice President of Engineering Ken Yang is on sabbatical from UCLA

More information: Pluribus 

While working at Sun as chief architect for storage and network virtualization of Solaris, Pluribus CTO Tripathi kept running into the same problem, as did Sun customers. "Coordinating between multiple networking components is really hard to do," he says. Between the compute virtualization layer, the persistent environment and the different operating systems, hypervisors and applications on each server, it is really difficult to centrally control them.

Tripathi (who holds 80 patents, many related to Solaris, but a variety in virtual switches, too) left Sun to solve this problem, and for the past three years has been building a team to create its Netvisor network operating system and Server-Switch hardware. Similar to how the x86 server ushered in an era of compute virtualization, Tripathi says a new era of networking chips from manufacturers like Fulcrum, Intel and Trident will allow increased programmability of switches. But they still need an operating system to control them, and that's what Pluribus provides.

Tripathi says he started Pluribus before the hype around SDNs heated up. Even though there are a bunch of startups in this emerging field - just look at the rest of this list of companies to watch - Tripathi says Pluribus's Netvisor system can work with next-generation networking switches and controllers from the likes of Nicira and Big Switch.

VC Jim Smith of Mohr Davidow, which has backed Pluribus, says a couple of things stood out to him about this start-up, including the team and its devotion to offering a complete package. "We're already seeing the pain-points for this next-generation networking technology," Smith says. "It's clear there will be a new control layer to manage these super-complex compute and networking environments we're building for the future. Pluribus Networks is one of the few companies we've seen that offers a complete fabric for handling that complexity."

Simplivity

SimpliVity

Headquarters: Westborough, Mass.

Founded: 2009

Focus: Data center in a box

Product availability: Limited availability of OmniCubes today; general availability in March.

Funding: $43 million from Accel Partners, Charles River Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

Management: Chairman and CEO Doron Kempel, founder and CEO of Diligent Technologies, and with IBM and EMC before that; Vice President Engineering Brian Nadeau is a former Dell executive director; Vice President Marketing Tom Grave was director of product management and marketing for IBM's storage division.

-More information: Simplivity 

CEO Kempel doesn't have the traditional background of a start-up tech exec: He holds degrees from Tel Aviv University in law and philosophy and served as a major in the Israeli Defense Forces before pursuing a technical career.

That amalgamation of experience is emblematic of what SimpliVity brings to the market: A unified data center system that combines best-of-breed technologies. It offers an alternative to a common data center rack filled with possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of servers, shared storage units, backup and deduplication appliances, a WAN optimization box, a cloud gateway and more.

Simplivity's OmniCube 2U appliances, which work with VMware software, each boast up to 40TB of usable capacity, 12 cores and 800GB of memory. They start at around $55,000 and if users need more scale, they can add OmniCubes, creating a highly-available OmniStack that can be dispersed geographically and managed centrally.

A key driver behind the OmniCube is data management. Kempel and his team came from Dilligent, a de-duplication startup that IBM bought in 2008. Using that experience, the company has integrated deduplication and compression into the OmniCubes for all data at inception and throughout all layers of the OmniCube. This eliminates the need for separate WAN optimization tools and speeds the connections for data requests, the company says.

Translattice

TransLattice

Headquarters: Santa Clara

Founded: 2007

Focus: Geographically distributed relational database management

Product availability: TransLattice Elastic Database (TED) launched in 2010, Version 3.0 was released in February

Funding: $9.5 million, led by DCM Ventures

Management: CEO and Co-founder Frank Huerta and CTO Michael Lyle, both formerly with Symantec, Recourse Technologies and Exodus

More information: TransLattice 

Let's say an organization has multiple sites across the country or world, and has a database accessed by workers in all those locations. The database needs to be synchronized so that everyone has all the same information, no matter where they are.

The cloud might seem like one option: Spin up a relational database instance via Amazon Web Services, right?

Not quite says Louise Funke, marketing vice president for TransLattice. AWS database instances do not automatically replicate across sites, so changes made in one availability zone of Amazon's cloud will not appear immediately at another site. TransLattice databases do.

A software and hardware appliance from TransLattice sits at each site where an organization has a relational database and automatically synchronizes the nodes across locales. It uses sharding techniques that split up the data into bite-size chunks as well as caching technology to get the job done.

The company was born in part out of the vision of CTO Lyle, who before co-founding the company served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture firm DCM. He kept hearing pitches from companies doing WAN optimization, load balancers and database optimization tools. "All those individual components just make the system more complicated and they don't actually solve the problem," Funke says. So Lyle - who had previously served as CTO of distributed security/threat management firm Resource Technologies, which was later acquired by Symantec - left the VC world and began pursuing the idea of a globally-dispersed database system.

Now, TransLattice is humming along, having recently announced the third generation of its TransLattice Elastic Database (TED), which now spans across Amazon Web Services and Dell public clouds to ensure high availability and resiliency. The company has also rolled out the TransLattice Application Platform, which applies the same technology used to synchronize the databases for customers to host applications at sites across the globe.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

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