When VMware launched NSX earlier this year, it promised a network controller -- extensible using published APIs -- that allows higher level network services such as firewalls, load balancers and application accelerators to plug in at any point in a virtual network. VMware touted more than 20 partners working on NSX integration. The vision sounded great, but given VMware's inclusion of several network services in NSX including firewall, load balancing and VPN termination, it was easy to assume that the promised virtual ecosystem was DOA.
Palo Alto Networks has countered that assumption with its firewall appliance for NSX. Selling optional services against a built-in feature is never an easy task, but Palo Alto has taken up the challenge.
The new appliance marries Palo Alto's next-generation firewall, in virtual appliance form, and Panorama central management platform with ESXi VMs by plugging into the NSX virtual network controller. It's a logical extension of Palo Alto's existing VM-Series by moving the virtual firewall from the VM to the hypervisor, plugging directly into the NSX vSwitch to access all hosts on a given system.
According to Danelle Au, solutions marketing director at Palo Alto Networks, tighter integration into the network control plane via NSX allows better tracking of VM movement, more granular control and easier service insertion to existing VMware infrastructure.
The NSX-Panorama integration means that Palo Alto virtual firewalls now take orders from two masters: the NSX controller for deployment and network insertion (addresses, VLANs, etc.) and the Panorama console for security policy. By using the same security management system as Palo Alto's hardware appliances, while also being integrated with the NSX network controller, the design facilitates keeping security and server management duties separated, according to Au. Security admins continue to set policy, define rules and monitor events from their existing management console while server admins can deploy and move VMs without worrying about changing network or security configurations.
Key to the automation and dynamic updating of security policy configuration is the use of what Palo Alto calls containers that set security policy based on application, user groups or content. As Au wrote in this blog post, the firewall's "dynamic address groups feature can now populate application container context directly from VMware so security policies will incorporate the latest attributes of virtual machines."
Au added that communication between the NSX controller and Panorama security management system results in a fully automated deployment. Once a VM admin provisions applications in the appropriate container, the respective network and security controllers take care of the configuration details. The system also means applications can migrate to different hosts without the server admin having to worry about security implications.
[Read about VMware's licensing scheme for NSX in "VMware Mum On NSX Pricing, Touts License Plan."]
According to Au, the firewall registers as a network service on the NSX controller, which then updates configuration details of VM deployments back to the Panorama platform. The NSX controller automatically deploys the virtual firewall image to all ESXi systems and the firewall uses the NSX vSwitch network services to connect with every VM on the physical host. The virtual firewall gets licenses and policy from Panorama, which also updates any network changes it receives from the NSX controller.
Although NSX also supports KVM and Xen, Palo Alto's product currently only works on ESXi. Au said the company is still profiling the product's performance, but expects to provide 1 Gbps of throughput per VM with full "App-ID" traffic classification enabled. Licensing details have yet to be released, but Au said the NSX-compatible firewall will be available in configurations supporting 2, 4 or 8 virtual ports. Palo Alto's VM-Series for NSX is currently in beta release with general availability planned in the first half of 2014.
The joint development between VMware and Palo Alto is the most concrete example yet of the synergies between virtual network overlays and application services. The product illustrates the improvements in service granularity, automation and separation of administrative roles that is possible in virtual networks. It will be interesting to see if other security, load balancing, WAN optimization and monitoring/forensics products follow Palo Alto's lead by jumping on the NSX bandwagon. Given the elegance of this this design, we expect there will be many.Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio