Let the Enterprise Networking Games Begin
A year or so ago VMware started talking about the software-defined data center (SDDC), followed in short order by its acquisition of software-defined networking (SDN) startup Nicira.
Twelve months on from that acquisition and Nicira's network virtualization platform has been VMware-ified and re-released as NSX: a kind of extra layer to VMware's whole server virtualization ecosystem.
Under NSX software, the network infrastructure becomes just another pool of commodity resources to be managed, manipulated and controlled by VMware.
But Cisco, Juniper and other network hardware manufacturers have quite different visions for the future. These visions involve a long and profitable future for themselves — something that is quite incompatible with the idea of the being reduced to purveyors of cheap commodity hardware.
Networking hardware manufacturers don't want to be reduced to churning out cheap boxes that they hand over to customers who will then pay vast amounts of money to VMWare to have these boxes controlled.
These companies haven't been sitting idly by, either; they have SDN strategies of their own.
Cisco's involves its Open Network Environment (ONE) controller, which will run network applications and services (such as network slicing, tapping and custom forwarding) and which will talk to (i.e. manage, manipulate and control) routers and switches.
It will do this using OpenFlow, but also — to avoid the possibility of its networking hardware becoming a commodity — using its own ONE Platform Kit (OnePK) set of APIs. Of course, only Cisco's kit will be able to talk using OnePK.
And Juniper is doing something similar: it bought a network controller maker called Contrail back in 2012, which the company plans to use as the basis of a SDN offering along with its JunosV App Engine that currently talks to Juniper hardware.
Then let's add HP to the mix. The company has backed OpenFlow in the past — probably as a way at getting at Cisco because Cisco is backing OnePK — and it won't welcome NSX in the long term.
NSX Unveiling Brings Things to a Head
VMware's announcement of NSX — which will be available in Q4 2013 — brings things to a head. That's because it's a company that many, many large enterprises rely on for their server virtualization technology, and increasingly for their private cloud and hybrid cloud implementations too.
That means VMware's hypervisor is at the heart of most of these companies' operations. Now VMware is offering a way to move towards software-defined networking that's evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and VMware is very much putting its weight behind it.
While this also means these other companies have to act, when Cisco's and Juniper's SDN offerings are truly ready it's unlikely that these companies will push them so wholeheartedly because they threaten their existing businesses.
But they will be left with no option except to fight VMware — either by pushing their own SDN solutions or their existing non-SDN products.
In the meantime, the likes of Juniper and HP have announced support for VMware's NSX — but you can't help but feel that these are fair-weather friends who are hedging their bets.
The war for control of the enterprise network of tomorrow is about to begin, and when it does it's going to get dirty because it's a war no one can afford to lose.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.