Highly anticipated net virtualization startup Nicira exits stealth mode

AT&T, eBay, Fidelity Investments, NTT and Rackspace using startup's network virtualization tool

One of the most anticipated debuts of a startup company happens today when Nicira, a maker of network virtualization software, comes out of stealth mode.

Nicira was founded in 2007 and has raised $50 million from investors Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA, and industry luminaries Diane Greene and Andy Rachleff. Greene is the co-founder of VMware and Rachleff is a founder of Benchmark Capital. (Network World tapped Nicira as one of 25 hot startups to watch back in October of 2010.)

Nicira's business proposition is to virtualize the data center network -- as opposed to servers, like VMware and other hypervisors -- so the network can become agile and portable to accommodate the mobility of virtual machines and workloads within and between data centers.

ANALYSIS: OpenFlow and SDN: Networking's future?

In essence, Nicira wants to do for the network what VMware did for servers: employ the same VM operational model so network segments can be moved around without disruption or manual intervention. Nicira officials say this will remove the last remaining bottleneck to dynamic, on-demand cloud computing -- networks that are complex, vertically integrated, fragile and costly.

"The network is the barrier to the cloud," says Martin Casado, Nicira co-founder and CTO. "Network configuration is difficult" when VMs are mobile or when provisioning service to a new tenant. "It takes seven days to set up a network for a new application."

With virtualization, it should only take 30 seconds to prepare the network for a new application, Casado says. That's the goal of Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform (NVP), software that resides on virtual switches in servers in the data center. NVP reproduces every characteristic of the physical data center network -- such as security and QoS policies, Layer 2 reachability, and higher-level service capabilities such as stateful firewalling -- and includes APIs to hypervisors and orchestration tools to coordinate operation with the virtual world.

It also includes an OpenFlow API to the data center switch to be able to program them and separate control from the physical infrastructure. The API to the orchestration tools is the Quantum API in the OpenStack specification for open source-based cloud computing, which Nicira helped define.

Casado's work at Stanford led to the creation of OpenFlow, an enabler of software defined networking (SDN), which is a model many in the industry view as the next paradigm shift in networking.

"This will be the biggest transformation in networking in 25 years," says Nicira CEO Steve Mullaney.

But the impact of SDNs on the network hardware industry, of which Cisco is the dominant vendor, will not be felt for another couple of years, Mullaney says. Eventually, network intelligence will be sucked out of the hardware and housed in controllers at the edge of the network, acting as the brains of a "cheap" Layer 3 IP switching fabric, he says.

Cisco is preparing for the emergence of OpenFlow and SDNs. The company has stated plans to add OpenFlow to its Nexus switches, but beyond that, its plans for either embracing or combatting the SDN trend are unclear.

NVP and SDNs treat the physical network as an IP backplane. This allows the dynamic creation of virtual networks that support VM mobility within or between data centers without service disruption or address changes, Nicira says.

Legacy approaches -- the domain of Cisco -- can leave as much as 20% to 30% of the server capacity in data centers underutilized and drive up networking costs several-fold, Nicira says. The company claims NVP can recover $20 million to $37 million in capital and operational costs for a large data center of 40,000 services and 1 million VMs.

Nicira, however, has not yet calculated the economics of NVP on a network.

NVP is compatible with any data center network hardware, the company says, and can be deployed non-disruptively on any existing network. It also allows for future changes to the network hardware without disruption to the operations of the virtual network, Nicira says.

NVP shipped in July and is in use at AT&T, eBay, Fidelity Investments, NTT and Rackspace. It is priced through a usage-based, monthly subscription model, which scales per virtual network port.

In addition to Casado, Nicira was founded by networking research leaders Nick McKeown from Stanford University and Scott Shenker from the University of California at Berkeley.

Nicira joins recent SDN entrants Embrane and Contextream. Embrane is focused on Layer 4-7 virtualization for enterprises and service providers, while Contextream is focused on the Layer 4-7 challenges of cloud and managed hosting providers. 

"The introduction of another network virtualization product is further validation that the network is in dire need of increased agility and programmability to support the emergence of a more dynamic data center and the cloud," says Embrane co-founder and President Dante Malagrinò. "Traditional networking vendors aren't delivering this, which is why companies like Nicira and Embrane are so attractive to service providers and enterprises. Embrane's network services platform can be implemented within the re-architected approach proposed by Nicira, or in traditional network architectures. At the same time, products that address Layer 2-3 and platforms that address Layer 4-7 are not interchangeable and it's important for the industry to understand the differences as the network catches up to the cloud."

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