5 predictions: How virtual networking will change the network industry

The industry reached a "virtual" tipping point in 2009 when, according to IDC, the number of newly installed virtual machines surpassed the number of newly installed physical servers. This inflection point is having a profound impact on how we manage, secure and provision IT resources. No doubt the network will look completely different in just a few years too, but here are five predictions for how virtualization will change networking in 2011.

1. VLAN technology runs out of steam in the cloud and "L2 is sexy" again.

Today's Layer 2 networking technology was designed for a static environment that proved suitable for several decades. But in the cloud era, rapid provisioning of L2 environments based on fast changing business requirements is so critical that existing Ethernet and VLAN technology cannot keep up any more.

Existing L2 technology, for example, was optimized for a flat name space and multi-tenancy was never a design goal. In the cloud, however, multi-tenancy is a key requirement. What's more, a single logical L2 network in the cloud era may need to span several data centers and sometimes different cloud providers.

Furthermore, there can be hundreds of thousands of tenants within just one public cloud and clearly the maximum of 4,095 VLANs is not nearly enough.

The bottom line for 2011: on-demand, scalable, flexible, fungible, and multi-tenancy L2 network technology is needed as the fundamental building block for public and private cloud.

2. Convergence aftermath: territory redefined

By now, all major server OEMs own a network switch business and all the network switch companies have a solid road map for the virtual realm. But convergence needs to have a profound impact on enterprise organizational structures too. For example, for years server admins have owned the server and the network admins owned the physical switch gear. But does it make sense to draw such a line in the sand moving forward?

After all, a number of virtual/physical switch integration products with seamless management tools have emerged. The Nexus 1000V is one example, but many other virtual switch integration solutions are available as well.

The virtual switches can be owned by network admins, but we also see server admins managing some layers of virtual or physical switches thanks to recent software advancements in data center automation.

Software should and will automate away many repetitive single workload deployment network provisioning jobs, however network expertise and teams are still needed in the data center.

Bottom line for 2011: IT executives across the globe are contemplating how to organize their staffs to get the most out of their virtual environments, and no matter how the territory is redefined, it is clear the boundary no longer has to be physical server vs. virtual server.

3. Virtual network service sprawl

"Virtual L2" alone will not be sufficient for the cloud because we need the rest of the L3-7 functionality to be provisioned instantaneously when rising up each virtual L2.

Virtual network services have been discussed for years but where are they today? Are they mature enough for enterprise and cloud use? Allan Leinwand blogged earlier this year that "most networking appliances are still stuck in physical hardware." Certainly, the landscape evolved quite a bit throughout 2010. VMware released vShield App and vShield Edge; F5 released a virtual appliance, and many other ecosystem partners from big networking vendors to small start-ups joined the party too.

In 2011, many more virtual network services will start to show up in data center production environments. We will also start experiencing some "network service sprawl" very much like what the server virtualization industry experienced earlier. The key to the solution is more manageability and automation built into the platform and solutions.

Bottom line for 2011: private and public cloud agility requirements demand virtual network services. Like any disruptive technology, there may be some pain associated with it initially depending on scalability and resource management requirements.

4. New business model surfaces as both a vendor challenge and an opportunity

In this "Post Virtual Tipping Point" era, the business model for traditional network vendors has to morph. In the past, network vendors mainly competed on price/performance. In the cloud era the focus will have to be shifted from doing networking efficiently to supporting better business agility.

Bottom line for 2011: the hardware cost per gigabit port will be a smaller factor in purchasing decisions as end-users look more at software integration with the virtual realm.

5. Virtual switches become a motivation to virtualize workloads

Let's be honest, today people buy into server virtualization first and then get to deal with virtual networking. Few purchased vSphere products solely because they wanted VMs to run on a virtual switch.

There will be some change of tide starting in 2011. People will start recognizing visibility is actually better in the virtual realm since the hypervisor can do switching without "learning", the hypervisor can enforce access control proactively given the intimate knowledge of the workload, performance can be better in many scenarios, and the virtual switch can scale out better and achieve much higher "port" density.

Bottom line for 2011: we will see for the first time some people start doing server virtualization mainly because of the capabilities of virtual switching.

In summary, massive landscape change is ahead of us in the network industry over the next few years. 2011 in particular will witness virtual L2-7 technology innovation/deployment and business model transformation.

Xu is responsible for VMware Networking and IO virtualization vision, strategy, and engineering execution. He co-invented Virtual Switch on vSphere (ESX Server) and led a number of key vSphere products and features from concept to fruition since 2002.

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