Will VMware, Cisco Collide On Virtual Networks?

VMware's NSX platform appears to travel the same network virtualization path as its longtime partner Cisco. Is a smash-up inevitable?

Charles Babcock

August 31, 2013

7 Min Read
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VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines

VMware Vs. Microsoft: 8 Cloud Battle Lines

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With the launch of its NSX platform Aug. 26, VMware has added network virtualization to the list of things its willing to do in the data center. It's also set a course that appears to intersect that of a venerated partner, Cisco.

If there's a collision, it's going to be hard to classify it as an accident.

VMware knows virtualization and understands very well the new control point that's emerged at the virtualization management console. If there's a software-defined data center someday, VMware will be deeply entrenched in the heart of it.

Cisco knows networking, and counts many VMware users among its primary customers. When VMware brought three early NSX users on stage on the first day of VMworld: eBay, Citi and GE, it gave CEO Pat Gelsinger a powerful testimonial that the crowd, too, could take the networking platform seriously. All three customers were also users of Cisco networking, Gelsinger acknowledged. It was a genuflection to an old ally, with the subtext that VMware customers didn't have to wait for Cisco to do what it had already done.

[ Want to learn more about VMware's entry into the virtual networking market? See VMware Builds SDN Ecosystem; Where's Cisco? ]

Cisco was silent on VMware's announced plans for three days, but on Aug. 29, CTO Padmasree Warrior disagreed publicly, in a blog. VMware's approach "places significant constraints on customers. It doesn't scale, and it fails to provide full real-time visibility of both physical and virtual infrastructure. In addition this approach does not provide key capabilities such as multi-hypervisor support, integrated security, systems point-of-view."

Warrior also said VMware was forcing its customers to "tie multiple third party components together ... address multiple management points, and maintain version control for each of the independent components." Software-only network virtualization views the physical network as separate from the virtual one, denying users a common policy framework from which to manage both. Cisco's approach keeps network management a unified task, Warrior said in so many words.

Warrior said VMware's analogy that it will do for network virtualization what it did for server virtualization mistakenly assumes that networks, like servers, were underutilized until VMware came along. On the contrary, with server virtualization, they're more likely to be fully utilized and require a different kind of management as virtualization penetrates deeper into the data center.

Despite this tension, the two companies are more closely intertwined than many people realize. Cisco's successful entry into the server market was fueled by its mastery of integrating the network with virtual machine environments. VMware invented a distributed hypervisor switch that could handle messaging from hundreds of virtual machines at a time. Cisco put it into hardware, the Nexus1000, and integrated it with servers on a rack. On the strength of its Unified Computing System (UCS), Cisco has gone from non-player to number four in the server market. If Sun Microsystems were still in existence, Cisco would have displaced it a year ago. HP, Dell and IBM, still lead but Cisco revenues are growing the fastest, 50% year over year.

That wouldn't have been possible without close collaboration with VMware. Furthermore, Cisco is an old ally of EMC, VMware's parent company. The top management of both companies are well acquainted, are used to coexisting in co-opetition and are pledged to work together. That may get more and more difficult as market forces in virtual networking play themselves out.

The two still work closely together through a subsidiary, Virtual Computing Environments, and VCE is one reason Cisco enjoys the place it does in the server market. VCE sells Vblock, preconfigured racks of servers based on Cisco UCS. Vblocks are how some companies have gotten into cloud computing quickly. CSC in Atlanta did not have a presence in cloud services until it built out infrastructure based on Vblocks. In August, Gartner put only two suppliers in the upper right, "Leaders," section of its cloud infrastructure Magic Quadrant: Amazon Web Services and CSC. (Amazon clearly still leads overall.)

Trey Layton, CTO of VCE, said in an interview that he thinks both VMware and Cisco "will maintain a different perspective on how to address the challenge of virtualized networking." With Cisco an owner and VMware merely an "investor," Cisco has VCE solidly in its camp for the foreseeable future.

But he thinks the market for virtualized networks will be large and there are ways the two can make their respective approaches work together. Cisco will base its network virtualization on an approach that gauges an application's needs, then assigns a logical slice of the physical network to serve it. It can support the assignment of firewall security and load balancing at the same time. It's called Application-Centric Infrastructure and it's being developed by Insieme, a startup created inside Cisco. This approach keeps the creation and control of the virtual network out on the network and away from the creation of the virtual machine, where it resides with VMware's approach.

Layton diplomatically asserted that "there's plenty of room for these approaches to work together and benefit both," but no one is sure things will pan out that way. Companies that have invested heavily in network administration and Cisco hardware are likely to see it Cisco's way. At least some companies that have invested heavily in virtualization, which include many of Cisco's existing customers, are likely to give VMware its chance to extend the virtual administrator's management console.

And Cisco can't help but notice that some of the most enthusiastic adopters of VMware NSX are its toughest hardware competitors. It's as if they, as a group, have sensed that the door to competing with Cisco has cracked open on a new front and they want to get through it as quickly as possible.

HP said last week at VMworld that it will "federate" its Virtual Application Networks SDN Controller with VMware's NSX. The SDN Controller is HP's OpenFlow protocol-based controller, which can provide a central point from which to set up and tear down virtual nets laid out on the physical network. Its operation can be automated, based on the application's known network requirements. HP, something like Cisco, has a network management-based approach to software-defined networking that puts physical and virtual network management on a single pane of glass in front of the network manager. Unlike Cisco, it's preparing to enable a hand off network management to VMware's NSX and the virtual machine management console.

Bethany Mayer, HP's senior VP and general manager of networking, in HP's announcement said a typical cloud data center might provision 10,000 virtual servers a day, each with a virtual network that would take 20 network commands. Entered manually, they would take 3,333 man hours to complete. "The HP-VMware networking solution promises to eliminate manual configuration of both physical and virtual data center networks," she said.

Juniper Networks, a Cisco competitor which has made little headway against Cisco's dominance, was also quick to sign up as a supporter of NSX. Dell's S6000 switches will support NSX. Arista Networks, Andy Bechtolsheim's high-capacity switching newcomer, is a NSX partner. Brocade, F5 Networks, Silver Peak and Citrix Systems are also partnering on NSX, as well as security vendors McAfee (owned by Intel), Symantec, Palo Alto Networks, Trend Micro and Rapid 7.

VMware has its strengths as the strongest virtualization vendor in the enterprise data center. But Layton doesn't hesitate to point out that VBlocks can be found inside 10 of the top 15 telecom service providers in the world. Cisco will have its own position of strength as the battle for control of the virtual network proceeds.

Learn more about network virtualization by attending the Interop conference track on Cloud Computing and Virtualization in New York from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

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