Make Way for the Software-Defined Data Center

The messaging in VMware’s announcement of its planned acquisition of Niciraoffers insight into both the company’s view of the deal and the current state of cloudcomputing. In essence, without virtualization, cloud computing is an amorphouspipe dream. However, virtualization alone — or of one type or in just one portion of the ITinfrastructure — isn’t enough to support truly agile, elastic, efficient and reliable computeclouds.

Instead, vendors need to supply and businesses need to adopt virtualizationsolutions that extend across and allow the abstraction, aggregation, pooling andmanagement of all IT infrastructure assets. The result of that vision is what VMware calls the “software-defined data center” ofwhich the company considers Nicira’s software-defined networking (SDN) technologiesto 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 moreaccurate 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 deployedof IT assets, making them exceedingly difficult to manage in increasingly virtualizedinfrastructures. A case in point: It might take VM as little as two minutes to provision a conventional server, butprovisioning the associated network and network services can add days or even weeksto the process, according to a blog post by VMware CTO Steve Herrod.

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

Openness and Heterogeneity

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

With Nicira’s SDN technologies inhand, the company will be able to field a fuller range of branded networking solutions inthe 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 anddedication to open source principles across numerous environments. This is a criticalissue 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 andNicira executives.

To date, VMware’s leadership position in x86 virtualization has allowed it to largelydictate the terms of its engagements. But challenging economic issues, more ablecompetitors, and customers unwilling to lock themselves into relationships with anysingle vendor highlight the critical role heterogeneous solutions play in most corporatedata centers.

VMware clearly understands that point and recognizes both the dangersof being on the wrong side of history and the substantial benefits that should accrueby supporting Nicira’s longstanding dedication to open principles and heterogeneoushypervisors.

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 entiresolution portfolio with VMware’s, should be a clear winner if Nicira delivers hoped-forbenefits. 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 datacenter strategy.

Of potential losers, Cisco and other vendors dedicated to old schoolnetworking 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 willrequire networking traditionalists to rethink their business not just “whistle past thegraveyard.”

Overall, VMware’s acquisition of Nicira is good news for bothcompanies, their respective customers, and most of their partners. In VMware, Nicirahas gained a parent whose dedication to technological innovation and successamong enterprise customers aligns closely with its own.

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

Charles King

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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