Embrane Emerges from Stealth, Brings Heleos to Light

I had planned to write about something else today — and I still might get around to it — but then Embrane came out of stealth mode. I feel compelled to comment, partly because I have written about the company previously, but also because what Embrane is doing deserves notice.

Embrane’s Heleos

With regard to aforementioned previous post, which dealt with Dell acquisition candidates in Layer 4-7 network services, I am now persuaded that Dell is more likely to pull the trigger on a deal for an A10 Networks, let’s say, than it is to take a more forward-looking leap at venture-funded Embrane. That’s because I now know about Embrane’s technology, product positioning, and strategic direction, and also because I strongly suspect that Dell is looking for a purchase that will provide more immediate payback within its installed base and current strategic orientation.

Still, let’s put Dell aside for now and focus exclusively on Embrane.

The company’s founders, former Andiamo-Cisco lads Dante Malagrinò and Marco Di Benedetto, have taken their company out of the shadows and into the light with their announcement of Heleos, which Embrane calls “the industry’s first distributed software platform for virtualizing layer 4-7 network services.” What that means, according to Embrane, is that cloud service providers (CSPs) and enterprises can use Heleos to build more agile networks to deliver cloud-based infrastructure as a service (IaaS). I can perhaps see the qualified utility of Heleos for the former, but I think the applicability and value for the latter constituency is more tenuous.

Three Wise Men

But I am getting ahead of myself, putting the proverbial cart before the horse. So let’s take a step back and consult some learned minds (including  an”ethereal” one) on what Heleos is, how it works, what it does, and where and how it might confer value.

Since the Embrane announcement hit the newswires, I have read expositions on the company and its new product from The 451 Group’s Eric Hanselman, from rock-climbing Ivan Pepelnjak (technical director at NIL Data Communications), and from EtherealMind’s Greg Ferro.  Each has provided valuable insight and analysis. If you’re interested in learning about Embrane and Heleos, I encourage you to read what they’ve written on the subject. (Only one of Hanselman’s two The 451 Group pieces is available publicly online at no charge).

Pepelnjak provides an exemplary technical description and overview of Heleos. He sets out the problem it’s trying to solve, considers the pros and cons of the alternative solutions (hardware appliances and virtual appliances), expertly explores Embrane’s architecture, examines use cases, and concludes with a tidy summary. He ultimately takes a positive view of Heleos, depicting Embrane’s architecture as “one of the best proposed solutions” he’s seen hitherto for scalable virtual appliances in public and private cloud environments.

Limited Upside

Ferro reaches a different conclusion, but not before setting the context and providing a compelling description of what Embrane does. After considering Heleos, Ferro ascertains that its management of IP flows equates to “flow balancing as a form of load balancing.” From all that I’ve read and heard, it seems an apt classification. He also notes that Embrane, while using flow management, is not an “OpenFlow/SDN business. Although I see conceptual similarities between what Embrane is doing and what OpenFlow does, I agree with Ferro, if only because, as I understand it, OpenFlow reaches no higher than the network layer. I suppose the same is true for SDN, but this is where ambiguity enters the frame.

Even as I wrote this piece, there was a kerfuffle on Twitter as to whether or to what extent Embrane’s Heleos can be categorized as the latest manifestation of SDN. (Hours later, at post time, this vigorous exchange of views continues.)

That’s an interesting debate — and I’m sure it will continue — but I’m most intrigued by the business and market implications of what Embrane has delivered. On that score, Ferro sees Embrane’s platform play as having limited upside, restricted to large cloud-service providers with commensurately large data centers. He concludes there’s not much here for enterprises, a view with which I concur.

Competitive Considerations

Hanselman covers some of the same ground that Ferro and Pepelnjak traverse, but he also expends some effort examining the competitive landscape that Embrane is entering. In that Embrane is delivering a virtualization platform for network services, that it will be up against Layer 4-7 stalwarts such as F5 Networks, A10 Networks, Riverbed/Zeus, Radware, Brocade, Citrix, Cisco, among others. F5, the market leader, already recognizes and is acting upon some of the market and technology drivers that doubtless inspired the team that brought Heleos to fruition.

With that in mind, I wish to consider Embrane’s business prospects.

Embrane closed a Series B round of $18 million in August. It was lead by New Enterprise Associates and included the involvement of Lightspeed Venture Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners, both of whom participated in a $9-million series A round in March 2010.

To determine whether Embrane is a good horse to back (hmm, what’s with the horse metaphors today?), one has to consider the applicability of its technology to its addressable market — very large cloud-service providers — and then also project its likelihood of providing a solution that is preferable and superior to alternative approaches and competitors.

Counting the Caveats

While I tend to agree with those who believe Embrane will find favor with at least some large cloud-service providers, I wonder how much favor there is to find. There are three compelling caveats to Embrane’s commercial success:

  1. L4-7 network services, while vitally important cloud service providers and large enterprises, represent a much smaller market than L2-L3 networking, virtualized or otherwise. Just as a benchmark, Dell’Oro reported earlier this year that the L2-3 Ethernet Switch market would be worth approximately $25 billion in 2015, with the L4-7 application delivery controller (ADC) market expected to reach more than $1.5 billion, though the virtual-appliance segment is expected show most growth in that space. Some will say, accurately, that L4-7 network services are growing faster than L2-3 networking. Even so, the gap is size remains notable, which is why SDN and OpenFlow have been drawing so much attention in an increasingly virtualized and “cloudified” world.
  2. Embrane’s focus on large-scale cloud service providers, and not on enterprises (despite what’s stated in the press release), while rational and perfectly understandable, further circumscribes its addressable market.
  3. F5 Networks is a tough competitor, more agile and focused than a Cisco Systems, and will not easily concede customers or market share to a newcomer. Embrane might have to pick up scraps that fall to the floor rather than feasting at the head table. At this point, I don’t think F5 is concerned about Embrane, though that could change if Embrane can use NaviSite — its first customer, now owned by TimeWarner Cable — as a reference account and validator for further business among cloud service providers.

Notwithstanding those reservations, I look forward to seeing more of Embrane as we head into 2012. The company has brought a creative approach and innovation platform architecture to market, a higher-layer counterpart and analog to what’s happening further down the stack with SDN and OpenFlow.

3 responses to “Embrane Emerges from Stealth, Brings Heleos to Light

  1. It’s worth noting that Embrane is not a load balancing or firewall business. They are attempting to position their product as a platform for horizontal scaling of virtual appliances – which nicely positions them for acquisition by a larger company who might want to add this platofrm their virtual appliances.

    That’s where I think the valuation comes from. Making a platform play is inherently tougher that a product play, but could pay off handsomely since it’s not directly competing against other products – this is an enhancement, not a replacement..

  2. Thanks for the comment, Greg. You’re absolutely right about Heleos being a platform play, a point you made in your original post and something that Embrane itself stated in its press release when it proclaimed the product “the industry’s first distributed software platform for virtualizing layer 4-7 network services.”

    It’s early in the game, but I think most of the prominent L4-7 players would come to view Embrane as a competitor — if only an indirect, platform-oriented one — if it were to make inroads among their service-provider customers. If that scenarios unfolds, then one of them might be inclined to acquire Embrane at some future date.

    For now, though, I don’t see any of the big ones enabling Embrane by partnering with them prematurely. It wouldn’t make business sense, unless their customers were insistently demanding (really insistently demanding) such a move.

    The platform play, I think, just reiterates the degree to which Heleos is a solution that, at this point, is exclusively suited to cloud service providers. I can’t see many enterprises looking to use Heleos as a platform for development of their own load balancers and firewalls. Conversely, it is not that hard to envision a large service provider, which might already work with ODMs for its own servers and switches, deciding that Heleos might be a viable and cost-effective approach to scale out a limited number of L4-7 network services.

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