VMware announced its biggest ever bet yesterday buying up virtual networking startup Nicira for $1.26B.

VMware’s CTO Steve Herrod has been talking up the concept of the “software-defined data center” for the past couple of months, and covered here for The Virtualization Practice by Bernd Harzog.  VMware has offered similarly marketing friendly messages in the past, calling its technology “the virtual Mainframe”, “the virtual cloud” and “virtual data center operating system”. These are not just empty vessels, there is a central belief within VMware that it is out to change the way that computing is delivered, not to deliver incremental advances on existing methods.  The data center is an unruly aggregation of servers, storage, and networking; VMware has already addressed the server, and now with the Nicira acquisition VMware is taking on the network.

Server virtualization adoption has progressed remarkably rapidly over the last 5 years, with storage virtualization following close behind, but data center network virtualization has progressed much more slowly. While it is possible to take advantage of most current server and storage virtualization technologies in relatively self-contained environments; networks are more complex, ubiquitously interconnected and governed by an extensive, deeply entrenched set of standards, X86 server virtualization deployments are pretty much green field site jobs compared to the challenges of attempting network virtualization. Even the relatively simple task of bumping networks from 1 to 10 Gb/s has taken years to make its way through standards bodies and into customer networks.

In essence, Nicira’s network virtualization platform (NVP) decouples a virtual network from the physical network hardware. Just as with storage virtualization, all of the intelligence, the control, and services that today are performed in dedicated silicon are now performed  in a general purpose virtual space. Where the benefits of storage virtualization can be measured in cost savings, network virtualization goes much deeper.

A formerly dumb pipe carrying bits from  two different virtual machines running on the same physical server can now be programmed to act in vastly different manners, according to flexible, programmable rules, mapped to the virtual servers role. In the same way a single physical server can b segmented in to many virtual machines, a single network physical can act like  many fully independent networks. At the same time the reverse is true; multiple disparate networks can be seamlessly linked together to act like as if it were a single high performance yet highly resilient pipe. And just as with virtual servers today a virtual network can be created on the fly in minutes in response to changing demands.

Before the Nicira announcement was made public Steve Herrod presaged the news with a comment on the destabilizing nature of the software-defined data center:

 “If you’re a company building very specialized hardware … you’re probably not going to love this message.”

$1.26B may appear to be massive sum given Nicira ‘s limited sales to date – Nicira’s early customers include AT&T, eBay, Fidelity Investments, Rackspace and the Japanese telecom giant NTT. Yet given it the strategic importance of data center networking to VMware’s growth strategy the cash it paid out for the psueo-stealth virtual networking startup may with hindsight be seen as the bargain of the year.

Long time Cisco partner will be feeling the pain today, its early work pushing the development of the Cisco 1000V virtual switch has been significantly devalued by the Nicira announcement, and it will face increased pressure to to port the 1000V to competing platforms. Having this news come out the same day that Cisco announced it was cutting a further 1,300 employees (2% of total work force) in addition to a 15% cut it announced last year will not have helped.

Certainly the message from VMware is clear, the days of hardware defining the data center are coming to a close and VMware fully intends to be at the heart of the new data center generation.

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Simon Bramfitt (128 Posts)

Simon is an independent industry analyst covering enterprise desktop, mobile and application virtualization, delivery and management technologies.

He is an experienced solutions architect with unmatched insight into the challenges of designing large (200,000 seat plus) high availability presentation and desktop virtualization systems.

Simon was invited to join the Citrix Technology Professionals (CTP) group in May 2010 and joined the Virtualization Practice in September 2010

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