Forward Networks Emerges from Stealth

After three years of development, networking startup Forward Networks today is emerging from stealth with a new take on how to understand networks. Forward Networks already has raised $11.5 million in funding and has the backing of Software Defined Networking (SDN) pioneer Martin Casado, who is currently a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz.

David Erickson, co-founder and CEO of Forward Networks, explained that he and his three co-founders had been at Stanford working on networking challenges. Among Erickson’s achievements is Beacon, which was the first open-source Java OpenFlow controller. Forward Networks has little to do with OpenFlow or SDN, however; rather it’s a new company focused on the larger issue of how to actually understand how a network is configured.

The Forward Networks platform has three core capabilities. The Forward Search feature enables a network administrator to rapidly understand all the possible routes that data can be routed in a network. Forward Verify is about validating that network policy is actually what is happening with the network configuration. While Forward Predict is about understanding the potential impact of changes on a network in an effort to help prevent outages.

“Forward Networks is all about accelerating and automating manual network configuration and correlation work that network operators have to do today,” Erickson said. “We’re also helping to uplift operators ability to work correctly and make fewer mistakes.”

Network administrators have long had many different types of tools for understanding how a network is configured and where data packets are going. Among the most basic tools is one called ‘traceroute’ which simply traces the route packets take from destination to another. Erickson explained that what Forward Networks does is much more than what traceroute can show.

“With traceroute all you’re able to get is each Layer 3 hop in the data path,” Erickson said. “What you’re missing is any layer 2 devices,you’re missing any rules within the devices, such as firewalls, and you’re MPLS as well as other protocols that are critical in the decision making process of where the packet goes.”

The goal with Forward Search is to show every single devices on the network path as well as every decision point on devices in the path. That said, Forward Networks, just like traceroute, is not able to provide visibility into unmanaged switches in a network path, which are commonly found in enterprises and small offices. Erickson explained that the target market for Forward Networks is enterprise data centers, where it’s very rare in his experience to encounter an unmanaged switch.

Erickson explained that the ‘secret sauce’ of Forward Networks is in how it learns about the network.

“The model is all built by exclusively collecting data through a sequence of CLI (Command Line Interface) commands, talking to the devices,” Erickson said. “We generally issue ten to twenty CLI command per devices to get all of the details about how each device behaves.”

While Forward Networks pulls data from devices on a network to understand behavior, one are of the company’s approach that isn’t yet fully fleshed out is auto-discovery of all managed devices on a network.

“Right now we’re a little more prescriptive, assuming that customer have all their devices in some kind of configuration management database today,” Erickson said. “So they will give us the IP addresses and log in credentials for devices.”

Erickson said that in the future the plan is to perform more auto-discovery of a network.

The idea of trying to verify network paths and configuration is also one that startup Veriflow is aiming to solve. Veriflow emerged from stealth in April with promise of bringing mathematical formal verification to the issue on network integrity.

“It’s a huge market and having another competitor like Veriflow, even if the is some degree of overlap, helps to justify the market space,” Erickson said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist

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