The big story of the last few weeks has been Dell’s $67B acquisition of EMC, and with it, VMware. This is big news for the industry—news that will have ramifications all over the software-defined data centre. One of the most interesting implications is how Dell will reconcile its own SDN strategy with VMware’s NSX vision. Do the two work together? VMware paid $1.2B for Nicira. With currently around 400 customers, as reported by VMware, and roughly one in four of those running in production, NSX is a relatively small but highly lucrative gem in the crown jewels of VMware. Dell will want to see something come from that aspect of this acquisition.
Since Dell acquired Force10 in 2011, it has had a stable of network offerings, though perhaps not with quite the clout of the more focused network vendors. Dell runs 3 to 5% of the switching market, depending on whom you ask. Dell gives those enterprises that want it a one-stop shop, with switch and router options at every level, from unmanaged modular switches to line-rate chassis switches right through the 40G and 100G space: options that rightly complement its server and storage offerings.
Dell’s software-defined networking (SDN) strategy has been one of “dis-aggregation.” Dell’s “Brightbox” switches, which decouple the switching hardware from the software, allow a choice of OSs running on the switch. (Dell has backed Cumulus Networks’ efforts to bring a Linux-based switch OS to market.) Dell’s strategy also separates the the virtual network from the physical network using VXLAN and GVRE tunnels to create network overlays. Further disaggregation includes separating the control plane and data plane using centralised network intelligence via OpenFlow solutions. All of this is contained within tools that allow programmability. It is a truly software-defined vision at every level, all based on standard hardware and standards-compliant or open-source software.
Nicira/NSX, in the VMware worldview, fits into the middle block of this quite nicely. NSX is one of the supported network function virtualization (NFV) platforms Dell promotes, along with Microsoft Hyper-V network virtualization (HNV) and Midokura Enterprise MidoNet. Of course, since VMware bought Nicira it has focused on the NSX-V product, which ties directly into vSphere, and has left the NSX-MH (multihypervisor) version, which integrates with Hyper-V and OpenStack, to one side. How long will a platform-agnostic Dell allow VMware such a narrow focus?
Dell’s strategy appears to be one of choice: “pick the OS for your switch,” “pick the NVO (network virtual overlay) you like,” “pick the NFV (network function virtualization) you like.” Mix and match. With a focus mostly on hardware, this has traditionally made sense. Dell has wanted customers to buy its hardware and has not really been worried about what runs on top. The acquisition of VMware will bring a shifted perspective to this section of the business. But can a focus on NSX-V fit into this mould?
The VMware strategy is to place NSX as the SDN. “Don’t worry about the switches you use: we will abstract them away. Virtualize all of the network functions, and reduce north/south traffic to a minimum. Microsegment to reduce the need for external firewalls. One central control point, and a very simple pipe beneath it.” In the VMware enterprise sandbox, this is very attractive, but there are still huge numbers of systems where more is required. Still run AIX or Solaris for your mission-critical app? Still want to use physical dedicated load balancers? On the ISP and network provider side? It is quite easy to hit limitations of the NSX view.
So, the big question is one of how Dell will run with VMware’s SDN system. On the one hand, it could easily run as is. NSX fits snugly into the Dell strategy as one of a number of NFV platforms, and with 40% ownership of VMware (but control of 97% of the voting), it may not be worth pushing too hard. But what if Dell does push? Dell could push for more OpenStack and Hyper-V integration to widen the appeal of NSX and bring in more customers. Or Dell could push really hard and hook NSX down into the other aspects of its switch enterprise, extending the NVOs into the switch software to reduce the impact of north/south traffic and allowing integration with non-VMware hosts. This would create an NSX that works best tied into Dell switches, which could help increase that 3 to 5%. It is by no means clear yet which direction Dell will take. But the future will be interesting to watch unfold.