Rich Napolitano was fewer than two years past his nine years with storage giant EMC, and was looking for a new startup to help lead.
Napolitano had plenty of experience with major tech vendors, including EMC, Sun Microsystems and Digital Equipment Corp., but also had time with startups, such as Pirus Networks (which was bought by Sun), Data Kinesis (which he founded and that was later acquired by Adaptec) and BluePoint Technology (purchased by Adobe).
As he looked around this time for a fourth small company to join, Napolitano found Plexxi, one of a growing number of startups that were beginning to roil the normally staid networking market with ideas of how things could be done differently to give businesses and service providers an alternative to Cisco Systems and other established players. He joined Plexxi and became its CEO, and this month is wrapping up his first year on the job.
During his time with EMC, Napolitano had a front-row seat to the changing dynamics within the data center, with the rise of hyperscale players like Facebook and Google and the systems they were creating in-house for their own massive facilities and emerging trends like converged infrastructure and cloud computing.
What Napolitano saw in Plexxi was a company that had the potential to change the way organizations thought about their data center resources, he told eWEEK. There is a need to shift the focus away from the hardware that makes up the infrastructure, and toward how the infrastructure can serve the applications that are being run. Customers increasingly want infrastructures that are scalable, dynamic and easy to use to help them run new workloads.
So much of what is being done now, even with new technologies such as software-defined networking (SDN), is focused on “how they do what they do,” Napolitano said, adding that the philosophy at Plexxi is focusing on technology that lets businesses “do what they want to do, that meets their requirements.”
Plexxi, based in Nashua, N.H., is one of a number of smaller startups that are looking to change how networking is done in the enterprise and with service providers. SDN involves decoupling the control plane from the underlying hardware—such as switches—and putting it in software that can run on less expensive and less complex commodity systems.
The goal is to enable businesses to build and run networks that are much more automated, scalable, flexible and affordable, and that can meet the demands of increasingly modern and changing workloads. It’s a growing market—IHS Infonetics analysts expect that spending on SDN technologies will jump from $781 million last year to $13 billion in 2019, driven in part by the move to branded bare-metal switches and the use of SDN by enterprises and smaller cloud service providers—and one that is attracting a lot of attention.
Established vendors like Cisco, Juniper, VMware and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are building out their portfolio of network virtualization offerings, while a range of smaller companies—such as Big Switch Networks, Cumulus Networks, Pica8 and Midokura—are gaining traction in the space.
However, Napolitano isn’t talking about SDN—or, for that matter, wired-defined networking (WDN)—when he talks about Plexxi. His company is more about NDS—network-defined software. Where SDN companies are looking to create overlays that enable customers to more easily manage the underlying networking gear they’ve always had, Plexxi is building a network underlay that is substantially different, that enables the network to be as scalable and easy to use as a cloud environment, he said. It can integrate into existing data center environments, and work with products from other vendors, such as VMware, as well as the network overlays from other network virtualization companies.
Plexxi CEO Wants to Build Networks of the Future
Plexxi is looking to enable single-tier, low-latency networks that can scale quickly, can be dynamically configured in seconds, and that first determine what resources the workloads require, then set about pulling those resources together. Once demand shifts, the network can be reconfigured in almost real-time, recabled as often and as quickly as needed. It leverages photonics rather than traditional cables to move data around, which makes configuration easier and increases how fast data can move, according to Napolitano.
“It allows us to do what we do,” he said. “It allows us to build a more dynamic network, a more scalable network. Our networks are not defined by our cabling.”
Napolitano’s initial year was focused on getting the company’s first enterprise-ready products out the door and growing its available cash. In July, the vendor launched its Plexxi Switch 2 Series, which is designed to collapse the network into a single tier that needs only a single switch type optimized for east/west traffic. It leverages Plexxi’s Control SDN controller and Connect application integration technologies, and is aimed at scale-out, virtualized, mobile and big data applications.
In September, the company raised another $35 million from investors, which will be used for everything from sales and marketing to customer support and R&D. In total, Plexxi has raised more than $83 million since its founding in 2010. The company in July signed a distribution agreement with Arrow Electronics, and has a number of customers using its offerings, though Napolitano declined to name these customers.
The CEO said one thing that has changed over the past year has been the discussions with potential customers.
“A year ago, it probably took us three hours to get someone to see the light,” Napolitano said. “Now in 30 to 40 minutes we can show a demo and they get it. … We look for people who are going to be really open-minded about it. How do you solve old problems in new ways, or new problems in new ways? If you’re building a data center of the future, we’ve got your network. The opportunity for us is enormous.”