VMware: Before us, software-defined networking couldn’t be done

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By Scott M. Fulton, III 

“Before NSX came along, it was thought that you could not do networking in software,” said Raghu Raghuram (pictured right), general manager for software-defined data center at VMware, during Day 2 keynotes at VMworld in San Francisco on Wednesday. “NSX changes all of that, and in just one short year, the largest banks, the largest telcos, indeed the largest enterprises in the world are all deploying NSX to transform their networks. That’s amazing momentum.”

This is the story of that little comment–whose nuances may not be self-evident.

There is a mindset that networking architecture, as a basic principle, must be “open” to the extent that it enables devices (both physical and virtual) to plug in. There is a second mindset that says such architecture must be “inclusive”. The two are different in the way that a fisherman having lunch and a shark having lunch are quite different.

Last year, VMware introduced a concept called NSX. It serves as a network overlay, which enables a server to connect to various physical network components, but process and route traffic using rules and processes that don’t resemble physical networking at all. Indeed, network engineers say these overlays create tunnels between switches, creating a metaphor that’s like “cloud” to represent processes that, once everything works right, you shouldn’t have to see or care about.

VMware’s NSX is different from OpenFlow in that it does not try to represent a physical network in a virtual way, however new that way may be. It does its work with its own methods. Although it emerged from a process that borrowed from Open vSwitch technology–which VMware inspiredbefore it became marshaled by Apache–its aim is actually to replace virtual switches as separate components, with server components that perform the switching function.

It’s networking, it’s in software and it lends definition. So there’s an “S,” a “D,” and an “N”. But since its inception, VMware has positioned NSX as something other than SDN. It has stopped short of calling NSX a competitor, probably out of courtesy toward those outside parties with whom it must still cooperate to achieve network interoperability.

Last January, in an interview with NetworkWorld‘s John Dix, VMware senior vice president Steve Mullaney took that tack to the very precipice. He said he believed in “sdn”, except as a philosophy, which he prefers described with lower-case letters. Yes, software will define networking. But the purpose of having software do that in the first place, he argued, was to decouple software from the physical infrastructure, in such a way that the software is not bound to hardware’s rules.

“It has nothing to do with controlling physical switches and using OpenFlow to control those switches,” said Dix. “The key is not to have to touch the physical infrastructure. Leave it alone and do what you do as an augmentation. Make that physical infrastructure better without touching it.” He went on to say, in classic VMware fashion, that any other implementation of defining a network in software is a “bastardization” of SDN, characterizing alternative approaches as both spurious and wrong.

Which brings us back to last Tuesday. VMware’s Raghuram took that tack one critical step further, which leaves open the question of whether VMware is stepping onto solid ground or into a more negative connotation of open space. VMware has a concept of the software-defined data center (SDDC, upper-case) which excludes SDN (upper-case). Now, that exclusion is more than just bastardization. SDN doesn’t even exist.

“SDDC,” said Raghuram, “is the only architecture that can resolve the conflicts that Ben [Fathi, VMware CTO] talked about [namely, the need to decouple]. It is the architecture for today and for tomorrow. It is the architecture that brings together traditional applications and cloud-native applications. It is the architecture that allows IT to run the infrastructure, and DevOps and developers to consume infrastructure programmatically. It is the architecture that enables governance and control on the one hand, while enabling self-service and elasticity on the other hand.”

For more:
– read this NetworkWorld article from earlier this year

Related Articles:
Apologetic VMware CEO makes peace offering of ‘virtual volumes’
VMworld 2014: Will vRealize lend ‘definition’ to the SDDC?

Read more about: NSXRaghu Raghuram

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