During the first three or so years after co-founding Embrane in 2009, Dante Malagrino was content to let the startup fly under the radar while rivals large and small scrambled to begin pulling together the pieces of their software-defined networking strategies.
Much of the initial focus of established players such as Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard, as well as startups such as Big Switch Networks and Nicira—now owned by VMware—has been on the Layer 1-2 access layer, leveraging the OpenFlow protocol and other technologies to make the data center network more flexible and programmable, according to Malagrino, Embrane’s CEO.
Malagrino and other Embrane officials decided instead to focus higher up the stack, to Layers 3-7, where the virtual services that will run atop the SDN infrastructure live. These services include load balancers and firewalls that help organizations and service providers bring more flexibility, rapid provisioning, programmability and security to their networks. Without these services, the promises of greater agility that SDNs promise could not happen, he told eWEEK in a recent interview.
And now, with its heleos SDN software platform in place and rivals rolling out their own SDN applications, Embrane executives will be more vocal going forward, Malagrino said.
“You can see how many companies are trying to move up the stack … and closer to applications,” he said. “We’re taking the gloves off a little bit. … We’re going to be much more explicit about” what’s happening in the market.
And SDN is a booming market. IDC analysts expect revenue in the software-defined networking space to grow from $360 million this year to $3.7 billion by 2016. SDNs hold the promise of creating more flexible, dynamic, scalable and programmable networks by taking much of the networking intelligence off complex and expensive switches and routers and onto software-based controllers.
There’s a lot happening in the space, with established players like Cisco, HP and Juniper Networks staking out their strategies while the smaller vendors push their initiatives. The market also is seeing some consolidation, with VMware last year buying Nicira for $1.26 billion, followed closely by Oracle grabbing Xsigo. Juniper in December 2012 bought Contrail Systems for $176 million, and Intel in February invested $6.5 million in Big Switch Networks.
OpenFlow has been an early emphasis for many vendors, with many enabling products to support the open-source protocol. However, there has been rapid expansion beyond OpenFlow over the past year. Martin Casado, CTO of Nicira and an early OpenFlow developer, caused a stir in the industry in December when he told journalists in Boston that he was wrong about OpenFlow, and that it’s the virtual switches in hypervisors that offer the best option for creating more programmable networks and handle such functions as security, billing and inventory, tasks traditionally done in hardware.
Other vendors, such as Juniper and Dell, are looking beyond OpenFlow and controllers as they expand their SDN efforts, and are making that move up the application stack that Embrane’s Malagrino talked about. For example, F5 Networks is making a push into the Layer 3-7 application tiers with its acquisition in February of LineRate Systems, into areas such as security, acceleration, optimization and traffic management.
Embrane Looks to Make Noise in Growing SDN Market
“As SDN matures, its focus will continue to move up the network stack, toward the application layers,” Lori MacVittie, senior technical marketing manager for F5, wrote in a Feb. 11 post on the company blog. “The programmable, scalable services at the application layer comprising the Application Services Fabric are necessary to fully realize the benefits of SDN and software-defined data centers, particularly in environments where network function virtualization [NFV] is adopted as a strategy to achieve maximum agility. Network function virtualization requires not only the improved performance of today’s modern x86 hardware platforms, but software capable of scaling on demand while maintaining optimal performance and offering a high-degree of programmability for superior software defined control over the network.”
Malagrino, a former longtime Cisco employee, said the issue for SDN is less about the Layer 2 connectivity tier—“The old Layer 2 problem … is a solution in search of a problem, and not the other way around.”—and more about the applications, which is why Embrane is aiming its heleos offerings at the application stack. The company’s portfolio includes virtual appliances for both load balancing and firewall, as well as heleo Elastic Services Manager network services orchestration tool.
Embrane’s goal is make its heleos products platform agnostic, enabling the services to run atop any SDN infrastructure layer offered by any vendor, he said. The company is seeing its efforts paying off. Embrane grabbed some headlines in February when Peer1, a hosting company, chose its heleos offerings over products from Cisco and Juniper.
Greg Rusu, general manager of Peer1’s cloud hosting service, Zunicore, told Reuters that he was impressed that Embrane’s offerings would work with any underlying hardware. “Juniper and Cisco did not have a viable SDN solution that was truly heterogeneous, truly cross vendor,” Rusu told Reuters.
In addition, services company SunGard last month also chose Embrane for SDN services. At the same time that Embrane announced the new customers, the company also unveiled new features added to the latest version of its heleos offerings, including enhanced APIs for integration with existing management tools and orchestration solutions such as OpenStack and CloudStack, a new user interface and command line interface, and the ability to support more than 300 network services instances on a single x86 server.
Malagrino said the goal is to create SDN services that are easy to deploy and manage and that can fit into any environment.
“I like for new technologies to be disruptive without being destructive,” he said. “We want to be in every single project that we can.”