Network Virtualization Startup Nicira Emerges from Stealth

Network virtualization startup Nicira is publicly debuted its network virtualization platform (NVP) today and, a tantalizing peek at its customer base aside, the company is making no secret of its cloud data center ambitions.

Virtualization laggard no more

Servers and storage have long enjoyed the workload elasticity provided by virtualization, relatively speaking. What’s missing are automated, efficient ways of moving and re-sizing those workloads across networks that eliminate the bulk of manual network configuration and streamlines networking hardware overhead.

Simply put, the networking part of the equation has failed to keep pace, preventing cloud providers from being as nimble and self-serve as they strive to be. To combat this, Nicira’s subscription based software creates a distributed virtual network infrastructure, established at the network edge and managed by a controller cluster.

In effect, the physical network becomes an IP backplane via a software layer that communicates with the physical network via Open vSwitch software deployed in server hypervisors. According to the company, this results in virtual networks that preserve the capabilities of physical networks — like security and QoS policies, L2 reachability and firewalling — with the added benefit of dynamic network addressing that untethers virtual machines from physical network connections. For cloud providers, this paves the way for network isolation on multi-tenant clouds, an enticing prospect attracting business from security-minded enterprises.

NVP also stretches the limits of two resources that many IT execs find themselves in short supply of: time and money.

The platform has already proven to be a time-saver for eBay. In a statement, eBay cloud architect JC Martin, describes the effect Nicira’s platform has had on its operations: “Nicira allows us to repurpose network infrastructure on-demand and move applications dynamically. This eliminates the operational constraints associated with the existing network environment, and reduces the time it takes us to deliver a service from days to minutes.”

As for cost savings, Nicira estimates that large data center customers (1 million VMs on 40,000 servers) can save between $15 million to $30 million on server and network hardware expenditures by avoiding over-provisioning and reducing the number of ports typically required to keep its platform operational.

OpenFlow roots

Nicira isn’t alone in pushing network intelligence and virtualization, however. Efforts like the OpenFlow standard have been embraced by the likes of Juniper and HP to address enterprise workload mobility. As it turns out, Nicira co-founder Martin Casado helped invent OpenFlow.

However, OpenFlow represents only a “small component” of Nicira’s technology. The most obvious difference is NVP is hardware agnostic. Whereas a successful OpenFlow implementation requires compliant network switching equipment — vendor support, essentially — Nicira claims that it “is compatible with any data center network hardware.”

Since 2007, the company has attracted $50 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners and New Enterprise Associates. Interestingly, VMware co-founder Diane Greene is listed as an individual investor, as is venture capitalist Andy Rachleff.

In addition to eBay, Nicira has also managed to make customers out of AT&T, Rackspace and Fidelity Investments. Nicira NVP is available now.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of IT-related websites and as the Green IT curator for GigaOM Pro. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

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