Arik Hesseldahl

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Networking Start-Up Nicira Wants to Mess Up Cisco and Juniper’s Business

For the last several months, I’ve been tracking the movements of Nicira, a start-up company that has been operating in stealth mode, but which has been raising eyebrows mainly for the people it has hired: Bruce Davie, described by some as a networking industry demigod from Cisco Systems; Alan Cohen, a former VP of Cisco’s Enterprise business; and Rob Enns, a former Juniper exec, are the trio that caught my attention. So have the investments from Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners and NEA, as well as VMware founder Diane Greene and venture capitalist Andy Rachleff.

On Monday, the company is officially taking the wraps off its plans. Nicira — which I’m told is pronounced like “nice era” — aims to be the vendor of a new networking technology that’s built specifically for the age of cloud computing.

One of the most important enabling technologies of the age of the cloud is something called “virtualization”: As computers have gotten more powerful, thanks mainly to the progress of Moore’s law and ever-better chips — a single computer can, with the aid of software like that created by VMware, act like it’s 10 or 20 or 40 different computers, all at once. Each “virtual machine” has, to its user, all the properties of a physical computer, and ensures that a single machine is used in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. Customers who use cloud services can quickly “spin up” new virtual machines as needed to meet new demands, usually within minutes.

But generally speaking, networking hasn’t kept up. The pipes through which bits pour in and out of data centers have gotten faster, but they haven’t gotten much smarter. Where cloud servers are flexible, precise and easy to manage, networks are, by comparison, blunt instruments. Meeting new demand means adding new capacity, and that usually means adding new hardware to the mix, and that usually takes weeks, if not longer.

If you’ve ever wondered if it were possible to “spin up” a virtual network as readily as you do a virtual machine, wonder no more, for that is precisely what Nicira wants to offer you, without the addition of a single new piece of hardware, but rather only some software that runs on your existing server. You don’t even need to have especially advanced networking hardware.

Its the kind of thing that could give big enterprises some new flexibility in managing their network infrastructure, particularly as need and demand peaks and drops, whether by the day or because of a seasonal change that happens just once a year.

The company already has customers: AT&T, eBay, Fidelity Investments, Rackspace and the Japanese telecom giant NTT are all using Nicira, the company says.

Nicira calls its product an NVP, or network virtualization platform, and it is being described as the sort of advance that comes along perhaps once every quarter-century. That’s a bold claim, but the argument on which the company is making it holds water. On a day-to-day basis, where you deploy an application in a data center is as much a function of how much networking capacity you have available as it is one of computing capacity.

Virtualization on servers allows you to spread a single app over as many physical machines as needed, but the network connecting those machines is what it is, and if it isn’t up to snuff, you can either enhance it by adding new routers and switches, or live with it. The result is that you can’t be as flexible with deploying apps as you’d like, and that certain machines end up being underutilized by as much as one-third, which is costly over time. You end up having to buy more servers, then pay to run them and cool them.

The Nicira NVP, as CEO Stephen Mullaney told me, “decouples” a virtual network from the physical network hardware. “All of the intelligence, all of the control, all of the services now get done in the virtual space.” The result, what was once a dumb networking pipe carrying bits into two different virtual machines running on the same one, can now be programmed to act in vastly different manners, according to rules in the virtual realm. In much the same way a single computer gets turned into a dozen, a single network can be subdivided and act like a dozen individual networks. Or the reverse: Several networks can be cobbled together to act like one. And a virtual network can be created on the fly in minutes, just like a virtual machine.

A network you can deploy in minutes saves a lot of money, because it allows you to move quickly as your networking needs change. Most big companies who demand the heaviest network loads have agreements with their service providers — usually big telecom companies — that a request for new capacity requires a week or more, because it requires the physical presence of technicians who have to install and provision new gear. But what if you can reconfigure your network in 30 seconds to meet the needs of some new application? That’s exactly what eBay’s Cloud Architect JC Martin found he could do after installing Nicira’s software on the company’s servers. EBay is a Nicira reference customer.

Other reference customers had other interesting experiences and uses to report. Japan’s NTT uses cloud data centers to run some 10,000 virtual desktops — think PCs that are all virtual machines — and found that it was easier to quickly switch between data centers during the rolling blackouts that have become the norm since that country’s earthquake last year.

There is, of course, a great deal more technical detail, but the point you have to get is that this company is out to disrupt the networking industry in a way that it hasn’t been disrupted in a long time. The traditional solution to networking problems is more, better, faster hardware, and companies like Cisco, Juniper, and Hewlett-Packard, among others, are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to sell more of that hardware.

But what if you could look a sales rep from one of those companies in the eye, and tell them that their latest million-dollar router or switch isn’t needed? Once upon a time, before the days of virtualization, if you needed a new server, you had to buy one and have it installed somewhere. Now you can, in most cases, rent space on one within minutes, or literally provision another with a few clicks of a mouse. It changed the expectation and much of the calculus of the IT industry. Many companies never buy their own servers at all, and rent space from cloud providers like Amazon, Rackspace and Joyent.

Exactly what a similar disruption might mean for networking vendors is a little hard to imagine, but if the folks at Nicira are right about the potential this technology of theirs has, it looks like that disruption is coming, one way or another.


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— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work