Juniper's Contrail makes it 'frenemies' with VMware

Juniper unveiled a new SDN controller that complicates the company's relationship with VMware.

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It seems we can’t go more than a couple of weeks without someone making another product announcement related to software defined networks (SDNs). A couple of weeks ago, VMware announced its NSX network virtualization platform at its user conference, VMworld. Along with the platform, VMware highlighted a number of NSX partners, one of which was Juniper Networks.

This week, Juniper took the covers off it’s own SDN controller by announcing the general availability of its Contrail controller. While Juniper’s vision matches that of VMware’s software defined data center, the approach from Juniper is markedly different than that of VMware. In addition to being a direct competitor to NSX, the Contrail controller is a completely standards-based controller that uses OpenStack as the orchestration protocol, whereas NSX is more of a proprietary platform meant for VMware-only environments.

Also, while the focus of NSX is building virtual networks within a data center, Juniper’s Contrail includes a vRouter, which allows the virtual network to be extended outside the physical data center. This can be useful to extend the virtual network between data centers or to branch offices if the need arises. To date, much of the industry focus on network virtualization has been on building a better data center network, but there’s certainly value in broadening the vision of virtual networks.

Another interesting element to the Juniper SDN announcement was the initiative that makes the source code library for Contrail available through an open source license and the introduction of OpenContrail. The concept behind OpenContrail is that the community-led approach to SDNs will drive adoption of Contrail through innovative use cases. By making the source code free, IT organizations can quickly test, deploy and experiment with SDNs. If Juniper executes on this initiative correctly, it should be able to monetize the open sourcing through support services or by purchasing the licensed version as the product usage becomes more mission-critical. This version of Contrail should be appealing to the RedHat community that lives and dies by open source and is an orchestration partner of Conrtrail. Through this partnership, Juniper has a chance of appealing to a broader audience than just its traditional network buyer.

The Contrail controller provides an excellent bridge between the virtual world of hypervisors and the actual network. The product uses XMPP to send messages for the control of a virtual switch inside a hypervisor. However, it also uses MPLS to control the network stack, giving the network manager control of the virtual network and the physical network. NSX’s model could create a “ships in the night” scenario where the physical and virtual networks have no real knowledge of one another, creating troubleshooting and domain problems down the road.

One thing that was missing from the Contrail release was support for OpenFlow. Juniper is taking more of a wait-and-see approach with OpenFlow to see how widely and rapidly it gets adopted. I could argue for the need to support OpenFlow and then argue that it’s not needed right now, so I don’t think the lack of OpenFlow support will hurt the appeal of Contrail at all. The key will be how quickly they could add it if the usage scenarios arise.

Overall, I thought it was a strong set of announcements for Juniper, although the company just tossed its hat into the “frenemy” ring with regards to VMware. This should be a trend we see continue as more vendors fight to control the virtual network.

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