Startup Challenges Network Infrastructure Giants

Toby Tremayne

Over the last few months a new company called Nicira (“Nice-era”) has been quietly taking off. With enormous financial backing from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners and NEA, and having secured major hitters from organizations like Cisco and Juniper as team members, the network virtualization company is aiming to totally disrupt the network provisioning market.

The concept is simple – virtualization is in heavy use in industry, but still tied to network infrastructure. For example you might get away with running X number of virtual machine instance on a server, but when you suddenly need 10 more, you’re going to need to provision more hardware and reconfigure your network. With that comes modification of firewall rules, fiddling about with the DMZ if the machines are to be accessed externally and on and on.

Nicira aims to alleviate that problem by completely virtualizing the network hardware. By creating an intelligent “Smart Edge” software layer, a company’s network can be completely re-provisioned so that it works the same as it usually does, but is not longer tied to specific hardware. Your users will see the same setup they’re used to and use the same programs the same way, but under the hood Nicira gives you unprecedented flexibility.

If you want to add new desktop machines, scale up capacity for a heavy load period, or just add new systems and services in house, the cost and time to provision can be massively reduced with a virtualized network. Instead of having to procure new hardware you can programatically add a new machine – which works exactly the same way as if it were physically sitting in your environment, but no new hardware, network patching, firewall adjustment or pipeline increases are necessary.

You can even automate deployment of new machines, whether it’s a new server cluster or a desktop environment for the new sales guy, it all happens through the Smart Edge, meaning the hardware behind it is treated as a single massive, scaleable resource. This also means you are freed from vendor lock in, as it really doesn’t matter who’s hardware you’re using behind the scenes. Network expansion cost becomes Operation Expenditure instead of CapEx, giving CIO’s more wiggle room in the budget.

Virtualization allows you to spread a single application over as many physical machines as needed to meet the demand, but it still relies on the network capacity to function. If your network isn’t up to the job, then the benefits your company receives from virtualizing software begin to diminish quickly, but with Nicira’s Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) this problem is sidestepped.

To take it a step further, you can deploy entirely new networks within minutes rather than weeks. If you engage a new client who needs their own private or hybrid cloud environment you can programatically provide this with no new hardware or setup.

Nicira are making the claim that this is a major advance in computing the like of which is only seen every 25 years or so, which is a bold one – but perhaps justified. The ability to deploy new applications, environments and services in minutes rather than weeks can be a game changer. What this means for the industry as a whole remains to be seen, but Nicira is definitely disrupting the status quo, whether the big networking companies like it or not.