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Why VMware is spending $1B-plus to buy Nicira

VMware makes strong software-defined networking play by purchasing Nicira

By , Network World
July 23, 2012 10:10 PM ET

Network World - VMware is a company on the move: its planned $1.26 billion acquisition of Nicira not only brings it into the software-defined network (SDN) market, but should also broaden VMware’s support for open standards and even open source.

Nicira, a five-year old company born out of academic research from Stanford University just like VMware, has been a pioneer in the much buzzed about SDN market. Its acquisition by EMC subsidiary VMware promises to help VMware address customer needs beyond server virtualization and into virtualizing the network layer of the data center.

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“While the price is steep, VMware has historically lacked networking sophistication,” which it gets in spades with Nicira, says Eric Hanselman, networking research director at the 451 Research Group. He sees the all-software networking approach fitting in well with VMware’s hypervisor and private cloud management software, vSphere.

Nicira technology gives VMware an opportunity to do to networking what its virtualization technology has done to servers, says VMware CTO Steve Herrod in a blogpost announcing the deal. Network virtualization is the next logical step in virtualizing the datacenter, he says. While a virtual machine can be provisioned in minutes, setting up the networking can require the configuration of thousands of routers and switches. Nicira addresses this by enabling customers to build a virtual networking layer.

As Herrod describes it: “Nicira’s software-defined networking starts by virtualizing the network, decoupling the logical view of a network from its physical implementation. It does so by creating an abstraction layer between server hosts and existing networking gear which decouples and isolates virtual networks for specific networking hardware, turning it into a pool of network capacity. This enables the on-demand, programmatic creation of tens of thousands of isolated virtual networks with the simplicity and operational ease of creating and managing virtual machines. The resulting business value comes from more agile, efficient, flexible, and robust networking configurations.”

SDN has been one of the hottest topics in networking this year, and 451 Group’s Hanselman says VMware’s acquisition “codifies some of the hype around SDN,” and puts pressure on Cisco. The networking giant has outlined a path to integrate SDN features in its offerings with its Open Networking Environment (ONE), “but this is going to bump up the pressure,” he says.  

From an end-user perspective, that’s a good thing if Cisco is being pushed to add SDN features more quickly and if VMware advances the Nicira technology, says Kyle Hilgendorf, a Gartner cloud analyst. He hears from frustrated customers frequently about the lag that the networking layer can have on cloud deployments.

Meanwhile, Nicira’s ability to work with multiple hypervisors and give customers choice in their cloud offerings is important, too. “Some customers are starting to consider what options exist beyond VMware,” says Hilgendorf. “If they don’t offer customers a way to expand and use other hypervisor formats, that could give them trouble in the long-term.”

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