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Nicira OpenFlow: Networking's Next Big Thing?

$40-million startup emerges with OpenFlow platform for virtualizating the network as effectively as servers.

One of the worst-kept secrets in Silicon Valley was revealed Monday, with the much-anticipated launch of an OpenFlow networking product from $40 million-backed startup Nicira. As an embryonic firm coming out of stealth mode, it was decidedly unstealthy.

Nicira is tackling one of the largest remaining problems in virtualizing the data center: giving the enterprise network the same flexibility and moldability as the virtualized servers that it's attached to. Nicira is one of the brain trusts of OpenFlow networking expertise, and its Network Virtualization Platform, launched Monday, will attempt to solve that networking flexibility and moldability problem.

Nicira already has its product installed at eBay, AT&T, Rackspace, Fidelity Investments, and NTT. For those who think OpenFlow networking is a subject to be taken up in the distant future, take note.

If Nicira officials attempted to keep the product under their hats, it didn't work too well. On Oct. 17, The New York Times ran a story What is Nicira Up To?, followed by GigaOm reporting on its OpenFlow focus the same day. Nicira had been previously named to GigaOm's Structure show's list of Top 50 Cloud Innovators.

[ Want to learn more about OpenFlow networking? See Is OpenFlow The Last Word In Software-Defined Networking? ]

"With today's networking, you lose a lot of the benefits you gain in server virtualization," said Martin Casado, CTO and co-founder of Nicira, in an interview. Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform includes a cluster controller serving as a central point for network routing intelligence. The controller can then tell "dumb" switches following the OpenFlow protocol how they should be routing traffic. The pattern is the opposite of the entrenched, spanning tree protocol, where network devices acquire intelligence about routes and each device becomes a hardened, inflexible perpetuator of routes, even if priorities on the network change drastically.

"Network virtualization is the biggest change to come to networking in 25 years," said Nicira CEO Stephen Mullaney in an interview. It's the missing piece of cloud computing. Until the network can be effectively virtualized, server virtualization will continue to have as much as 20-30% of its capacity underutilized, he added.

An eBay network architect, J.C. Martin, was quoted in Nicira's announcement as saying, "Nicira allows us to repurpose network infrastructure on-demand and move applications dynamically. This eliminates the operational constraints associated with the existing network environment." With Nicira virtualized networking, eBay is able to reduce the amount of time it takes to launch a new application "from days to minutes," due primarily to the reduced testing needed with its network resources, he said.

Casado said virtualized networks will allow the more liberal movement of virtual machines, not only around a data center, but between data centers in widely separate geographical locations. With Network Virtualization Platform, a virtual machine's IP address will not be attached to any physical devices and could follow the virtual machine as it shifts locations halfway around the world, he said.

IT's jumping into cloud services with too much custom code and too little planning, our annual State of Cloud Computing Survey finds. The new Leap Of Cloud Faith issue of InformationWeek shows you what to be aware of when using the cloud. Also in this issue: Cloud success stories from Six Flags and Yelp, and how to write a SAN RFI. (Free registration required.)

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