Linux-as-Network Startup Isovalent Launches Enterprise Product, Raises Google-Led Funding Round

The startup's networking platform Cilium runs inside Linux, instead of running on top of the OS.

Christine Hall

November 25, 2020

3 Min Read
google data center network room council bluffs
Network room at a Google data center in Council Bluffs, IowaAlphabet/Google

A few weeks back, when it was announced that the three-year-old Mountain View-based networking startup Isovalent was emerging from stealth -- after a $29 million Series A funding round and launch of a new product, Cilium Enterprise -- the big news wasn't the amount of money raised, but that the round was led in part by Google, with participation from Cisco Investments.

Both giants have a lot of skin in the networking game, and their votes-by-pocketbook would seem to lend credence to Isovalent's assertion that Cilium is a technology that threatens to rewrite the computer networking book.

Google has made commitments to Isovalent's technology that go beyond investment dollars, and so have others. In August, Google announced that it was using Cilium to drive Google Cloud Platform's GKE Kubernetes engine; Alibaba Cloud is using Cilium for high-performance cloud-native networking; Adobe, Capital One, Datadog, GitLab, and SAP SE are all users of the platform.

Andreessen Horowitz joined the round, which appears to have been an investment long in the making. Isovalent's co-founder and CEO, Dan Wendlandt, spent about 10 months as a partner at Andreessen in 2016, a stint that was sandwiched between a three-year-long gig as VMware's director of product management for cloud-native infrastructure and founding of the startup he now heads.

Related:VMware Wants to Help You Build a Modern Enterprise Network

"As enterprises move past the initial stand-up of Kubernetes and start transitioning critical workloads onto the platform, they are faced with difficult trade-offs between optimizing for a truly cloud-native platform and achieving traditional enterprise goals like security and compliance," Wendlandt said in a statement. "Cilium is cloud-native networking without the compromise: platforms teams get a developer-friendly, scalable and multi-cloud platform while giving SecOps teams the efficient and powerful security visibility and controls they need.”

Linux as a Network

Cilium's focus is on cloud-native networking, and its secret sauce is in its use of eBPF, a relatively new Linux kernel technology that can run sandboxed programs from within the operating system. This means that Cilium's networking code is embedded directly into the OS, greatly increasing efficiency, while addressing many security concerns. It's poised to become something of a game changer, as it effectively makes the network an integral part of the operating system instead of being yet another abstraction layer running on top of it.

While this sounds complicated, according to Isovalent, users won't need to understand or deal directly with the eBPF technology at the kernel level. Like everyone else developing cloud-native technologies, the company is working to remove the pain points for users.

Related:Is SONiC, the Open Source Network OS, Ready for Mainstream?

"Because eBPF sits at the Linux kernel level, Cilium can leverage the programmability of eBPF to make the Linux operating system Kubernetes-aware and provide a true cloud-native implementation, instead of relying on outdated technology such as iptables or other IP/port-based approaches," Thomas Graf, Isovalent's CTO and its other co-founder, said in a statement.

Graf also comes to the table with plenty of networking cred, having spent nearly 15 years as a Linux kernel networking stack contributor and core team member and four years contributing to the Open vSwitch Project, a standards-compliant open source virtual switch project for network automation. Along the way, he's also put in time at Cisco and Red Hat.

Although Cilium released under the open source Apache 2.0 license, making it freely available to download and install, the funding will allow the Isovalent to further develop and market Cilium Enterprise, a proprietary platform that includes features not included in the open source version, including troubleshooting tools and advanced security features.

"I have spent my entire career in this space, and the North Star has always been to go beyond IPs + ports and build networking visibility and security at a layer that is aligned with how developers, operations, and security think about their applications and data," Martin Casado, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and an Isovalent board member, said. "Until just recently, the technology did not exist. All of that changed with Kubernetes and eBPF. Dan and Thomas have put together the best team in the industry, and given the traction around Cilium, they are well on their way to upending the world of networking yet again."

About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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