Will VMware's big gamble on network virtualization pay off?

Analyst says NSX could touch off enterprise SDN battle vs. Cisco

In unveiling its NSX software this week, VMware is looking to convince its huge base of server virtualization customers to trust it with network virtualization, too, even though many of them  already look to Cisco for their primary network needs.

Martin Casado, CTO for networking and security at VMware, describes NSX as a kind of virtual networking data-plane add-on to what will be an updated version of VMware’s ESX computer virtualization technology that will ship later this year. NSX hasn’t yet been priced out publicly by VMware, but some customers testing it are said to be Citi, eBay and GE Appliances.

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Fortinet, McAfee among first to support VMware NSX net virtualization

Casado says NSX introduces a “new software layer” associated with network virtualization to allow enterprise managers to quickly set up and automate network control and security policy in VMware-centric data centers, including distributed firewalling, in order to “create fairly complex networks on fairly static hardware.”

He says NSX has no impact on routers or switches from vendors such as Cisco or Juniper. “The physical network still stays around,” he notes, but through NSX, VMware introduces a security policy oriented toward applications.

VMware customers will want to adopt NSX because it will support instantaneous Layer 2 and 3 configuration of networks, Casado said during a press conference at the annual VMworld event held in San Francisco this week. “If the hurdle is the network, bringing it up in seven to 49 days, we’ll reduce it to zero,” he says. The argument for using NSX, when it’s available by year end, will be “agility,” he says.

In a video shown to thousands of conference attendees Monday as NSX was introduced, Sri Shivananda, eBay’s vice president at platform, infrastructure and engineering systems, said using NSX virtualization helped simplify infrastructure management of 3,000 virtual machines.

Some analysts think VMware is downplaying how the NSX network virtualization platform will compete against what Cisco is doing in its Open Network Environment (ONE) effort.  “VMware and Cisco are battling,” says Gartner analysts Neil MacDonald, adding VMware is “downplaying the true competition.”

The arrival of NSX by the end of the year may ignite strong debate in the enterprise about adoption of software-defined networks, and the corporate VMware deployment team may find itself arguing with the Cisco networking group there on this topic. “The Cisco people will fight this,” predicts MacDonald. It may well be that small- to mid-sized companies will wonder why they need NSX software-defined networking at all.

Server virtualization has become widespread in the enterprise, and VMware is now holding out a path toward network virtualization and software-defined networks. But MacDonald says because there’s no public pricing yet for NSX, it’s uncertain what the total cost of ownership of adopting VMware’s network virtualization will be.

MacDonald adds that VMware, which is seeing a leveling out of server virtualization adoption, appears to be pushing forward into network virtualization as a means to generate new revenue growth. But the era of SDNs is just beginning and it may take several years for any of this to gain wide-scale acceptance, he points out.

To be sure, VMware and Cisco are cooperating on a number of technical areas associated with new VMware products, such as the early version of the VMware vSAN software-defined storage product -- a “virtual SAN” introduced Monday as well.

VMware storage product manager Alex Jauch spoke at the same VMworld conference session with Cisco product managers Roger Barlow and Kishan Ramaswamy to explain how vSAN can work on top of Cisco’s UCS products, including the Cisco ISR G2 and the UCS E-Series blades, to enable redundancy in storage clusters across the network.

The vSAN offering is currently available free with vSphere 5.5, also announced Monday, and customers can register to get involved in the vSAN beta.

Raghu Raghuram

Rghu Raghuram

Raghu Raghuram, executive vice president for cloud infrastructure and management at VMware, said in unveiling the company’s software-defined data center strategy that VMware is focused on creating the path that VMware’s many enterprise customers can use to reliably transition into public and hybrid cloud deployments.

To that end, VMware is opening new data centers in Santa Clara, Dallas and Sterling, Va., in addition to its Las Vegas data center for its vCloud Hybrid Service, while making vCHS generally available. In the future, VMware expects to offer “disaster recovery as a service.” In addition, data center and services provider Savvis is also supporting this VMware technology model in its Chicago and New York data centers.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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