Kelly Herrell is CEO of Vyatta which delivers advanced routing and security in a software-based network OS.
Flashback: It’s the mid’90s and the open systems revolution has hit the server industry. You need additional server capacity, with more growth on the near horizon. Do you buy the same thing you used to – an expensive, monolithic, inflexible mainframe? Or do you go with the modular approach of open hardware and software?
Today: It’s 2010 and virtualization is in full swing. You need a network that can keep pace with the rate of change in your compute infrastructure. Do you buy the same thing you used to – expensive, monolithic, inflexible devices? Or…
Toss the boat anchors. It’s time for your network to set sail.
Networking is software; it just depends what kind of hardware the specific workload requires. With the exception of switching and a few specialized packet-processing requirements, the vast majority of networking runs very well on x86 servers. Today a single-processor Intel server can handily drive 10Gb/s – for only 5% of what it would cost for a proprietary hardware router. (And it will be even faster tomorrow; it’s the Intel way.)
Enter the Virtual Machines
Given that networking workloads run well on servers, it was only a matter of time before the network virtual machines arrived. Already there are virtual machines for routing, security, WAN optimization, and load balancing from vendors such as Vyatta, Checkpoint, Riverbed, Citrix, IBM and F5.
If you noted that a couple of major networking vendors aren’t included in that list, don’t be surprised. And don’t hold your breath waiting, either. They have business models that rely entirely on extremely expensive proprietary hardware. Their anchors are too firmly planted in the ocean floor to pull out.
But there’s no more time to rest at anchor. Analysts agree that the time is now for network virtualization. IDC has written, “It’s clear to the industry that, because of server virtualization, a new network needs to emerge.” Yankee Group has written, “Virtualization levels the network playing field. The vendor that solves that problem first has a huge upside.”
Virtualization Equals Sea Change?
Clearly virtualization is a huge tidal force for the big networking vendors to contend with. What’s interesting is to look at their coping strategies. Instead of modularizing (the way computing did, and the way the rest of the networking industry already has), they are turning their big gear into even bigger gear – more anchor, less sail.
Their strategies attempt to draw a bigger circle around the problem, and to tell the industry that they own everything within that larger purview. Cisco has gone so far as to include servers in that circle, and has a new network architecture (Nexus) hard-wired into that complex. Think of those new cables as bigger anchor chain.
Significant Benefits of Virtualization
Meanwhile the race is going to the nimble. Sails are already up and sleek new architectures are slicing through the future. Today ,there are enterprises, ISPs, telecoms and clouds running virtual machines from the network edge to the data center. Here are the benefits they are already realizing:
- Speed: Deploy software images in server racks instead of boxes, cables and ladders
- Flexibility: Move network VMs around the same way as virtualized compute loads
- Scalability: Assign more virtualized hardware resource as workload grows
- Cost-effectiveness: Multiple VMs on a server eliminates entire classes of hardware devices.
With virtualization, network architects and engineers have the first chance in decades to chart a better course, one that better matches the network to the business strategy. It’s a fresh wind in a multi-billion-dollar industry – and a refreshing one at that.
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