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Make Way for the Software-Defined Data Center

By Charles King
Jul 31, 2012 5:00 AM PT

The messaging in VMware's announcement of its planned acquisition of Nicira offers insight into both the company's view of the deal and the current state of cloud computing. In essence, without virtualization, cloud computing is an amorphous pipe dream. However, virtualization alone -- or of one type or in just one portion of the IT infrastructure -- isn't enough to support truly agile, elastic, efficient and reliable compute clouds.

Make Way for the Software-Defined Data Center

Instead, vendors need to supply and businesses need to adopt virtualization solutions that extend across and allow the abstraction, aggregation, pooling and management of all IT infrastructure assets. The result of that vision is what VMware calls the "software-defined data center" of which the company considers Nicira's software-defined networking (SDN) technologies to be a cornerstone.

Why is SDN so critical to this endeavor? For two reasons. First, networks provide the "backbone" -- though "nervous system" may be a more accurate term -- that connects the various bits of the data center into a coherent whole. Just as we've seen in the past as servers and storage resources were virtualized, poorly allocated and/or managed assets resulted in inefficiencies that slowed, threatened or even incapacitated larger IT infrastructures.

In addition, networks are among the most inherently complex and widely deployed of IT assets, making them exceedingly difficult to manage in increasingly virtualized infrastructures. A case in point: It might take VM as little as two minutes to provision a conventional server, but provisioning the associated network and network services can add days or even weeks to the process, according to a blog post by VMware CTO Steve Herrod.

As a result, any substantial progress VMware makes in developing solutions that lessen or eliminate such issues is likely to resonate with most of its customers and partners.

Openness and Heterogeneity

To date, the company and other vendors have tended to approach network virtualization in a piecemeal fashion. In VMware's case, the result has been able if somewhat limited point solutions, including vCloud Director networking, vShield Network and Security, vSphere virtual switching and the VXLAN protocol.

With Nicira's SDN technologies in hand, the company will be able to field a fuller range of branded networking solutions in the short term. Over time, though, Nicira will likely allow VMware to enlarge its software- defined data center efforts.

Just as importantly, Nicira should allow VMware to extend its reach, influence and dedication to open source principles across numerous environments. This is a critical issue for VMware and a significant question mark among those outside the company, which is why it was addressed directly in the press release and by key VMware and Nicira executives.

To date, VMware's leadership position in x86 virtualization has allowed it to largely dictate the terms of its engagements. But challenging economic issues, more able competitors, and customers unwilling to lock themselves into relationships with any single vendor highlight the critical role heterogeneous solutions play in most corporate data centers.

VMware clearly understands that point and recognizes both the dangers of being on the wrong side of history and the substantial benefits that should accrue by supporting Nicira's longstanding dedication to open principles and heterogeneous hypervisors.

Winners and Losers

Who else stands to win -- or for that matter, lose -- from the Nicira deal? On the former side, VMware's largest shareholder, EMC, which has worked hard to integrate its entire solution portfolio with VMware's, should be a clear winner if Nicira delivers hoped-for benefits. The deal is also likely to please Intel, whose vision of x86-based "converged" IT infrastructures is very much in alignment with VMware's software-defined data center strategy.

Of potential losers, Cisco and other vendors dedicated to old school networking hardware are at the top of the list. On the plus side for those companies, technologies like Nicira's are in very early days but effectively dealing with SDN will require networking traditionalists to rethink their business not just "whistle past the graveyard."

Overall, VMware's acquisition of Nicira is good news for both companies, their respective customers, and most of their partners. In VMware, Nicira has gained a parent whose dedication to technological innovation and success among enterprise customers aligns closely with its own.

In Nicira, VMware has gained sophisticated SDN assets and solutions that should offer the company short-term commercial benefits, heighten its profile in the open source community, and help it achieve longer-term goals, including the vision of the software-defined data center.

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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