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SDN Startup Targets Cloud Providers

The number of startups in the software defined networking space is a testament to the faith industry insiders have in SDN's future.

SDN is a bold notion: Tell the network how to behave using an omniscient, application-driven controller and eschew individual device management. However, in this rapidly evolving way of thinking about the network, just how to achieve network virtualization nirvana is what sets apart vendor approaches.

SDN solutions vary greatly, depending on what problem is being tackled. An enterprise's network challenges differ from a WAN service provider's, which differ yet again from an IaaS cloud provider's. That's good for SDN startups; they have room to provide a unique solution without all competing for the same chunk of revenue.

Anuta Networks came out of stealth at Cisco Live in London this January. Anuta's target market is the cloud provider IaaS space.

What is Anuta selling? In a nutshell, Anuta's nCloudX product is a controller able to manage the physical infrastructure many networks already have in place today. In other words, Anuta isn't requiring multitenant cloud providers to install OpenFlow switches, deploy a new type of overlay, or otherwise disrupt the production environment to gain SDN-based orchestration and services management.

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Its goal is to abstract commonly deployed network routers, switches, firewalls and application delivery controllers, along with well-understood forwarding paradigms like BGP, OSPF, MPLS and VRFs, and hide them behind the nCloudX controller. Cloud operators and end users can then provision the network using templates predefined by the cloud designer that obviate the need for manual provisioning of each network layer.

How It Works

The nCloudX controller runs as a virtual machine on a server in a provider's existing infrastructure. The controller has a northbound REST API that applications use to tell nCloudX about provisioning requirements. Anuta has relationships with several vendors, enabling them to write to its API, including Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager. The software also plugs in to Quantum, the network component of OpenStack, for network abstraction services.

In the southbound direction, the nCloudX controller programs network devices through a combination of APIs, SNMP and automated CLI interaction. The company says it can integrate with a variety of devices from Cisco, including the Catalyst 6000 and 3000, the Nexus 5000 and 7000, and the ASR 1000. The controller also works with Citrix's NetScaler ADC and load balancers from F5 and Riverbed.

For environments interested in southbound OpenFlow and perhaps overlays for tenant separation, support for both are on Anuta's near-term roadmap.

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Once nCloudX is in place, there are several engines that an Anuta customer interacts with to design, provision, and monitor their network environment.

• The Service Design Engine builds a series of service-level templates or "network services" that are published.

• The Service Orchestration Engine maps the network service templates to the physical infrastructure.

• The Service Management Engine monitors the physical network infrastructure, and escalates alerts up through network service and tenant containers. Operators and tenants can tell at a glance which of their services are impacted because of a failure in the underlying network.

• The Capacity Management Engine tracks the ability of the underlying network infrastructure to support additional network services through the tracking of CPU, memory, VLANs, VRFs, bandwidth, firewall contexts and so on.

Interestingly, a topology discovery does not have to be completed before designing network services. The process of mapping network services to physical infrastructure is not dependent on the infrastructure actually being there; the mapping can happen later.

The demonstration I received of the nCloudX interface revealed an appealing design aesthetic. One the one hand, working with objects like load-balancers or firewalls was as simple as dragging and dropping icons. For some, that level of abstraction is both sufficient and important to keep their jobs simple.

On the other hand, certain screens take the viewer far more deeply into the nuts of bolts of the network, a necessary element for designers and engineers. As a network engineer, I especially liked the topology screen showing how a particular tenant's services flow through the network infrastructure, right down physical network interfaces.

The Anuta team has taken on a number of complex, error-prone networking tasks and wrapped a tidy controller around them. While Anuta's initial market push is into IaaS, it's easy to imagine applications for nCloudX in academia and large enterprises with multitenant needs, or in the broader enterprise arena where provisioning automation, global policy deployment and application performance monitoring remain pain points largely lacking holistic solutions. Before that happens, however, the company has to demonstrate that it can meet its promises in real-world deployments.