History and Significance of Nicira

The term “Software Defined Networking” (SDN) is relatively new, and so is the technology itself. In a world where server and storage virtualization are mature concepts, physical networks have often proved to be the biggest bottleneck to true computing abstraction. SDN and the “Software Defined Data Center” (SDDC) as coined by VMware are removing the final roadblock to complete virtualization – and threatening established networking companies like Cisco and Juniper. One of the pioneers of this approach was Nicira. A startup whose importance is signified by the staggering $1.26 billion paid by VMware to acquire it in 20121. So what made Nicira stand out? Here’s a brief history.

Nicira’s Origins and Founders

As a doctoral student at Stanford University, Martin Casado was engaged in a government project to help consolidate their networks and reduce the possible entry points for attacks. The solution was to create several isolated networks using the same hardware. But since networking was heavily dependent on the underlying infrastructure, it proved impossible to implement this in a flexible manner. Casado was to later call it “the hardest problem I’ve looked at in my life,”.

He decided to start Nicira in 2007 along with his doctoral advisors Nick McKeown and Scott Shenker. Nick McKeown in particular had a lot of experience with startups having founded and sold two companies himself. Abrizio which was acquired by PMC Sierra for $400 million and Nemo Systems sold to Cisco for $12.5 million23. He would then go on to found the non profit Open Networking Foundation in 2011.

Scott Shenker on the other hand was a computer science professor at Berkeley whose work on Internet resource sharing and design make him one of the top five computer scientists in the country.

As a startup, Nicira received its very first funding of $1.5 million from the government itself and eventually managed to accumulate $50 million in venture funding from investors like Andreessen Horowitz, LightSpeed Venture Partners and New Enterprise Associates4. Nicira had strong ties to VMware right from the start with Diane Greene, one of the founders VMware herself being an investor.

Abstracting Network Intelligence

Network companies like Cisco and Juniper add value to their offerings by incorporating more and more of the networking logic into their hardware. Functions like security and QoS enforcement are just two examples. In addition, they like to create entire frameworks that tie their various products together providing increased functionality, but also increasing the lock in.

A datacenter offering cloud based services needs to be able to quickly provision hardware resources and switch workloads as per the demand and customer configurations. With traditional networking solutions, this is not a trivial matter and perhaps even impossible. Take for example a database running several long business critical transactions. How do you suddenly move it seamlessly to another server while maintaining the state of execution and transaction integrity? Even if we manage to do that we have to deal with replicating the exact networking state, transferring over the mac addresses etc so that the end client is unaware of the entire procedure.

And this is where software defined networks come in. By virtualizing all of the resources like the mac addresses themselves, it becomes possible to reconfigure the logical topography within seconds. All of the logic and intelligence is abstracted to the “edge of the network” with the network components like the routers merely passing along IP packets, in essence turning them into “dumb” nodes. It’s an interesting parallel with the mobile world and Over the Top (OTT) services like VoIP and Messaging turning the carriers into dumb pipes.

And this in short, was what Nicira was offering. For a small startup company, they boasted an impressive number of clients like AT&T, eBay, Rackspace and NTT – Japan’s largest telephone company5. It’s not as if there were no other competitors in the field. Cisco was trying to head off the SDN revolution by creating their own network virtualization products, but Nicira was the best fit for VMware with its server virtualization capabilities.

Nicira’s Integration into VMware

With the acquision of Nicira, VMware was able to complete its trio of virtualization technologies – Server (vSphere), Storage (Virsto) and now Networks. Nicira’s technology has become a core part of their VMware NSX offerings that act as an equivalent of the ESXi hypervisor in the networking department. Nicira and VMware have also moved away from OpenFlow in favor of virtual switches incorporated into the hypervisor itself.

There’s little doubt that Software defined networking in the future will be greatly influenced by Nicira’s technologies and the Open Networking Foundation that they were so instrumental in creating.

References:

1 Julie Bort. “VMware Buys Nicira For $1.26 Billion – Business Insider.” 2012. 22 Sep. 2013 <http://www.businessinsider.com/vmware-buys-nicira-for-126-billion-2012-7

2 “Company news; pmc-sierra to pay $400 million for abrizio.” 22 Sep. 2013 <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/08/25/business/company-news-pmc-sierra-to-pay-400-million-for-abrizio.html

3 “Cisco to reel in Nemo | ZDNet.” 2010. 22 Sep. 2013 <http://www.zdnet.com/news/cisco-to-reel-in-nemo/144883

4 “VMware to Buy Nicira Network Software for $1.26 Billion …” 2012. 22 Sep. 2013 <http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-07-23/vmware-to-buy-nicira-for-1-dot-05-billion-to-add-network-software

5 Rich Miller. “Nicira Targets the Virtual Data Center Network | Data Center …” 2012. 22 Sep. 2013 <http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2012/02/06/nicira-targets-the-virtual-data-center-network/

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