VMware’s Nicira Emphasizing Virtual Switches Over OpenFlow for SDN

Nicira CTO Martin Casado, who created the popular OpenFlow protocol, says virtual switches are a better tool for network automation and programmability.

BOSTON—Martin Casado was at the ground floor in the development of OpenFlow, the protocol that has become a cornerstone of the burgeoning software-defined networking trend that promises to gain steam in data centers as the industry moves into 2013.

Casado—now the CTO of Nicira, an SDN pioneer that earlier this year was bought by virtualization technology vendor VMware for $1.26 billion—was a doctoral student at Stanford in 2007 when, looking to address the problematic automation issues in data center networking, saw a way of moving the networking functions, such as security, billing, quality of service and inventory, from traditional networking hardware and putting it into OpenFlow-based controllers in hopes of creating more flexible, scalable and cost-efficient networking infrastructures.

OpenFlow was born, and is now being embraced by established networking vendors and SDN startups alike as a key enabler of SDN. At the same time, Casado now looks at OpenFlow and says he was all wrong about the protocol and its approach to more flexible, programmable networking.

During a recent whiteboard meeting with journalists at VMware’s offices here, Casado talked about the development of OpenFlow, and his eventual belief that it was the virtual switches in hypervisors—particularly the vSwitches in VMware’s offerings—that offered the best solution for greater automation and programmability of data center networking infrastructures. Nicira executives switched their focus away from OpenFlow and to the virtual networking capabilities found in VMware’s virtualization platform.

He also mentioned that Nicira next year will roll out an SDN offering that will be independent of the virtualization hypervisor, enabling it to work not only with VMware’s virtualization technology, but also with virtualization platforms from other vendors. Casado didn’t go into any detail about the product, but said it would come to the market by mid- to late-2013.

SDNs and network virtualization have become the key drivers behind changes in networking infrastructures that for the past several years have been the bottleneck in data centers that have been rapidly transformed by server and storage virtualization. Enterprises and service providers are pushing vendors to offer networks that are more flexible and scalable, and better able to meet the demands of more dynamic applications and services.

“SDN has already had a major impact on the communications industry by providing a focal point for a revitalized interest in networking,” David Krozier, principal analyst in market research firm Ovum’s Network Infrastructure Telecoms unit, said in a recent report. “SDN provides an opportunity to completely reexamine network architectures, introduce virtualization, and provide truly innovative solutions.”

Ovum’s report focuses on more than three dozen vendors offering SDN technologies and the transformation going on in the industry. It’s a movement that is only in the beginning stages, according to Krozier.

“It’s too early in the evolution of SDN to draw conclusions about which approach will win or the exact architecture of future networks as there is too much innovation yet to happen, and vendors and their customers have yet to reach a common agenda,” he said. “But the search by vendors and network operators to find a better approach will eventually produce networks that are much more flexible in providing new services (monetizing the network) and more efficient in their use of resources (cost-effective).”