Daily Archives: October 17, 2011

Nicira Downplays OpenFlow on Road to Network Virtualization

While recent discussions of software-defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization have focused nearly exclusively on the OpenFlow protocol, various parties are making the point that OpenFlow is just one facet of a bigger story.

One of those parties is Nicira Networks, which was treated to favorable coverage in the New York Times earlier today. In the article, the words “software-defined networking” and “OpenFlow” are conspicuous by their absence. Sure, the big-picture concept of software-defined networking hovers over proceedings, but Nicira takes pains to position itself as a purveyor of “network virtualization,” which is a neater, simpler concept for the broader technology market to grasp.

VMware of Networking

Indeed, leveraging the idea of network virtualization, Nicira positions itself as the VMware of networking, contending that it will resolve the problem of inflexible, inefficient, complex, and costly data-center networks with a network hypervisor that decouples network services from the underlying hardware. Nicira’s goal, then, is to be the first vendor to bring network virtualization up to speed with server and storage virtualization.  

GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham takes issue with the New York Times article and with Nicira’s claims relating to its putatively peerless place in the networking firmament. Writes Higginbotham: 

“The article . . . .  does a disservice to the companies pursing network virtualization by conflating the idea of flexible and programmable networks with Nicira becoming “to networking something like what VMWare was to computer servers.” This is a nice trick for the lay audience, but unlike server virtualization, which VMware did pioneer and then control, network virtualization currently has a variety of vendors pushing solutions that range from being tied to the hardware layer (hello, Juniper and Xsigo) to the software (Embrane and Nicira). In addition to there being multiple companies pushing their own standards, there’s an open source effort to set the building blocks and standards in place to create virtualized networks.”

The ONF Factor

The open-source effort in question is the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which is promulgating OpenFlow as the protocol by which software-defined networking will be attained. I have written about OpenFlow and the ONF previously, and will have more to say on both shortly. Recently, I also recounted HP’s position on OpenFlow

Nicira says nothing about OpenFlow, which suggests the company is playing down the protocol or might  be going in a different direction to realize its vision of network virtualization. As has been noted, there’s more than one road to software-defined networking, even though OpenFlow is a path that has been well traveled thus far by industry notables, including six major service providers that are the ONF’s founding board members (Google, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo.)

Then again, you will find Nicira Networks among the ONF’s membership, along with a number of other established and nascent networking vendors. Nicira sees a role for OpenFlow, then, though it clearly wants to put the emphasis on its own software and the applications and services that it enables. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a perfectly sensible strategy for a vendor to pursue.

Tension Between Vendors and Service Providers

Alan S. Cohen, a recent addition to the Nicira team, put it into pithy perspective on his personal blog, where he wrote about why he joined Nicira and why the network will be virtualized. Wrote Cohen:

“Virtualization and the cloud is the most profound change in information technology since client-server and the web overtook mainframes and mini computers.  We believe the full promise of virtualization and the cloud can only be fully realized when the network enables rather than hinders this movement.  That is why it needs to be virtualized.

Oh, by the way, OpenFlow is a really small part of the story.  If people think the big shift in networking is simply about OpenFlow, well, they don’t get it.”

So, the big service providers might see OpenFlow as a nifty mechanism that will allow them to reduce their capital expenditures on high-margin networking gear while also lowering their operational expenditures on network management,  but the networking vendors — neophytes and veterans alike — still seek and need to provide value (and derive commensurate margins) above and beyond OpenFlow’s parameters. 

Update on IBM’s Acquisition of Platform Computing

Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to obtain specific details relating to the price that IBM paid to acquire high-performance computing (HPC) workload-management pioneer Platform Computing. If anything further surfaces on that front, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, others have made some good observations regarding the logic behind the acquisition and the potential ramifications of the move. Dan Kusnetzky who has longstanding familiarity with Platform in both a vendor and analyst capacity, provides a succinct explanation of what Platform does and then provides the following verdict:

“I believe IBM will be able to take this technology, integrate it into its “Smarter Computing” marketing programs and introduce many organizations to the benefits of harnessing together the power of a large number of systems to tackle very large and complex workloads.

This is a good match. “

Meanwhile, Curt Monash recounts details of a briefing he had with Platform in August. He suspects that IBM acquired Platform for its MapReduce offering, but, as Kusnetzky suggests, I think IBM also sees a lot of untapped potential in Platform’s traditional HPC-oriented technical markets, where the company already has an impressive roster  of blue-chip customers that have achieved compelling business results in cost savings and time-to-market improvements with the company’s cluster-management and load-sharing software.

There’s a lot of bluster about the cloud in relation to this acquisition, and that undoubtedly is a facet IBM will try to exploit in the future, but today Platform still does a robust business with its flagship software in scientific and technical computing. 

Platform apparently told Monash that it had “close to $100 million in revenue” and about 500 employees. The employee count seems about right, but I suspect the revenue number is exaggerated. According to a CBC news item on the acquisition, market-research firm Branham Group Inc. estimated that Platform generated revenue of about $71.6 million in its 2010 fiscal year. Presuming the Branham numbers to be correct, Platform would have 2011 fiscal year revenue ranging from $75 million to $80 million.

Finally, Ian Lumb, formerly an employee at Platform (as was your humble scribe) considers the potential implications of the acquisition on Platform’s long-heralded capacity to manage heterogeneous systems and workloads for its customers. This is a point that many analysts missed, and Lumb does an excellent job framing the dilemma IBM faces. Ostensibly, as Lumb notes, it will be business as usual for Platform and its support of heterogeneous systems, including those of IBM competitors such as Dell and HP.

But IBM faces a conundrum. Even if it were to choose to continue to support Platform’s heterogeneous-systems approach in deference to customer demand, the practicalities of doing so would prove daunting. Lumb explains why:

“To deliver a value-rich solution in the HPC context, Platform has to work (extremely) closely with the ‘system vendor’. In many cases, this closeness requires that Intellectual Property (IP) of a technical and/or business nature be communicated – often well before solutions are introduced to the marketplace and made available for purchase. Thus Platform’s new status as an IBM entity, has the potential to seriously complicate matters regarding risk, trust, etc., relating to the exchange of IP.

Although it’s been stated elsewhere that IBM will allow Platform measures of post-acquisition independence, I doubt that this’ll provide sufficient comfort for matters relating to IP. While NDAs specific to the new (and independent) Platform business unit within IBM may offer some measure of additional comfort, I believe that technically oriented approaches offer the greatest promise for mitigating concerns relating to risk, trust, etc., in the exchange of IP.”

It will be interesting to see how IBM addresses that challenge. Platform’s competitors, as Lumb writes, already are attempting to capitalize on the issue.