When you think of virtualization, the first thing that comes to mind is the server. By adding a layer of abstraction (a hypervisor) between the physical layer and applications, enterprises have gained a great deal of flexibility when it comes to assigning compute resources to various workloads.
On the network, however, things are bit different.
Here, virtualization usually involves dividing available bandwidth into multiple channels, which can then be assigned to various compute and/or storage resources throughout the enterprise. The result is largely the same: greater flexibility, simplified management and improved performance. But the technology differs from virtualization applied to the server farm. That's why many storage experts took notice earlier this week when Nicira unveiled its Network Virtualization Platform.
For the first time, it seems, someone has managed to create a fully distributed network infrastructure entirely in software and fully independent of underlying hardware. The intent is to vastly increase network flexibility and scalability in support of highly virtualized enterprise and cloud environments by enabling the same kind of abstraction that applications enjoy in the server.
In essence, Nicira is turning the physical network into an IP backplane through a distributed cluster controller architecture. This allows the system to work on virtually any hardware platform, incorporating the same levels of service and security that current network architectures provide. The company has already lined up Rackspace, AT&T and Fidelity as early adopters.
Still, it's safe to say that convincing enterprises en masse to replace their network infrastructure, which has taken years to compile in most cases, with an all-software replacement is a tall order. Software tends to be buggy, after all, and network reliability is something CIOs don't take lightly.
Indeed, many organizations may be more comfortable with the improvements found on existing network virtualization platforms. Cisco, for example, has added the Easy Virtual Network system on Catalyst 4500 and 6500 switches, as well as the ASR 1000 platform. The goal is to boost network flexibility even while throughput is improved the old-fashioned way -- by increasing bandwidth from current 10GbE platforms to 40GbE and 100GbE.
As well, HP is looking to foster a more universal approach to network virtualization by supporting the OpenFlow management protocol across its FlexNet architecture. With broad industry support as part of the Open Network Foundation, which counts not only Cisco, Juniper, Dell and IBM as members, but Google and Microsoft, as well. OpenFlow offers the possibility of greater network flexibility across the multi-vendor environments that already exist in most enterprises.
The key question in all this is whether any of these systems are capable of providing the kind of dynamic network infrastructure needed to fulfill the promise of cloud computing. A world of unlimited data resources and pay-as-you-go functionality is easy to imagine, but it is awfully difficult to produce.
Nicira may very well have a game-changing technology, but, as yet, it is an unproven technology. It seems the move to true network virtualization will not be quite as simple as it was in the server.
Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.