Game On for Virtual Networking

Arthur Cole
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The stress that virtualization and the cloud place on network infrastructure is well known. Nevertheless, it seems that many enterprises are getting a late start on revamping their network architectures to accommodate not only increased data loads but the increased flexibility that business processes are demanding.

To be fair, creating entirely new network environments is easier said than done. But there is a growing legion of virtual networking solutions that promise to drive efficiencies in existing infrastructure while making them more amenable to highly fluid data and application environments.

The latest is from a company called Nicira, which just unveiled its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) designed to extend virtual networks onto the cloud. The company already counts AT&T, eBay and Rackspace among its clients by offering a logical network layer on top of physical hardware. This essentially allows users to build up and tear down network pathways, processes and other elements without disrupting overall service. In this way, virtual machines gain the kind of flexibility they enjoy in server environments, but over the wide area.

As impressive as that sounds, Nicira has some tough rowing to do if it hopes to capture significant market share. Nearly all of the top networking firms are zeroing in on virtual networking as a means to bolster their cloud platforms.

Cisco, for one, in conjunction with new 40 and 100 GbE switching systems, unveiled the Easy Virtual Network (EVN) program designed to create logical networks on top of the Catalyst and ASR platforms. The system provides a simplified means to segment WAN connections, allowing managers to scale networks practically on the fly. At the same time, the company has added VXLAN capability to the Nexus 1000v virtual switch, providing a high degree of flexibility on both internal and external infrastructure.

For HP's part, the focus is on the OpenFlow platform. The company recently released 16 new OpenFlow-compatible switches, as well as expanded support in the FlexNetwork architecture in the coming year. By supporting an industry standard rather than a proprietary one, HP hopes to play a major role in enterprise plans to not only simplify network deployment and management, but to provide real-time change management that more closely matches cloud environments.

Already, that kind of networking ecosystem is coming into focus. Big Switch Networks recently released an open-source controller software stack based on OpenFlow. The company is planning a commercial release of the software later this year, by which time it hopes to have an array of third-party applications to enhance OpenFlow environments.

Of course, open systems always start with a lot of promise, but then get bogged down in integration issues and management challenges. These could very well be more acute in the complex world of wide area networking considering all of the connectivity issues that surround even simple architectures.

That's not to say that virtual networking in general is dead in the water. On the contrary, much of what has already been promised in the cloud can't happen without a flexible, dynamic network infrastructure. And as we've seen in server environments, abstraction is the easiest way to go about it.

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