VMware’s NSX, Partnerships Challenge Cisco in Data Center

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VMware, with its new NSX network virtualization platform and the growing list of industry partners, is ramping up what is promising to be a highly contentious competition with Cisco Systems in the software-defined networking world.

NSX, introduced Aug. 26 on the first day of the VMworld 2013 show in San Francisco, marries VMware’s network virtualization technology with the virtual network overlay platform the company inherited when it bought software-defined networking (SDN) startup Nicira last year for $1.26 billion. The new offering essentially decouples the networking and security in Layers 2 through 7 from the underlying hardware and into software.

The goal is to create data center networking infrastructures that are more easily programmable, more agile and faster to address the demands created by such trends as cloud computing, mobility and big data, Peter Wei, senior director of product marketing at VMware, told eWEEK.

“They want a Google-like infrastructure,” he said.

NSX also is a key part of VMware’s larger strategy around software-defined data centers (SDDCs), where all components—from servers to storage to networking—are virtualized, and management is done via software. Key to VMware’s efforts around NSX is the growing list of partners that bring everything from hardware support to such services as firewall, load balancing and VPN via the NSX API.

Hardware partners include vendors such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which have introduced new network switches that will support NSX. In HP’s case, the company also is partnering with VMware to create a federated solution that integrates its Virtual Applications Networks SDN Controller with NSX to give organizations unified management of virtual and physical infrastructures.

Juniper Networks, Brocade and Arista Networks are among the other of VMware’s network technology partners, while Citrix Systems, F5 Networks and Silver Peak are working with VMware in the area of application delivery. Among the security partners are McAfee, Symantec, Palo Alto Networks, TrendMicro and Rapid7.

The alliances are important for both VMware and the various partners as they look to take on Cisco in the data center, according to Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research. One of the limitations of NSX is that it looks to do everything network-related in software, Kerravala told eWEEK. That’s fine when doing such tasks as creating virtual overlays, he said.

However, when looking to do more difficult jobs like security and policies, organizations need some hardware. Partnering with the likes of HP and Dell gives VMware the ability to tie NSX back to networking hardware.

The VMware partnership will also help the networking companies, Kerravala said.

“For all networking vendors not named Cisco, what VMware gives them is a strong partner in the data center,” he said. “It gives them some level of stature in the data center. … VMware gives all the partners … a lot of credibility.”

The partnerships also are a key differentiator for VMware in its growing competition with VMware in the data center. Cisco, though its Open Network Environment (ONE) and onePK, is offering an SDN vision where it can offer everything from the software to the underlying physical infrastructure, though it can interoperate with third-party applications and services.

VMware is offering its own network virtualization platform that comes with a broad ecosystem of partners.

During the introduction of NSX Aug. 26, VMware officials brought on stage representatives from several major companies—including eBay, Citi and General Electric—to talk about their work with NSX. For such massive companies with large IT staffs, adopting a strategy that includes a central platform and best-of-breed partners can work, Kerravala said.

However, for the millions of smaller companies that don’t have the same size and expertise in their IT staffs, going to a single vendor like Cisco may make more sense, he said.

The moves set up what promises to be a high-profile competition between Cisco and VMware. Other vendors—such as HP and Dell—are looking to create their own stacks of data center offerings, but it looks like the key contest will be VMware versus Cisco.

“Both of these companies want to be the control points of the data center … and you can only have one,” Kerravala said.

It also is the latest proof point of the deterioration of what had been a strong partnership between the two companies. Not only was VMware’s virtualization technology a key part of Cisco’s efforts in developing the Unified Computing System (UCS)—an tightly integrated data center solution that included Cisco servers and networking products and VMware’s virtualization offerings—but the two vendors, along with VMware parent company EMC, created VCE, a company that sells converged data center offerings called Vblocks.

Despite assurances from officials from the companies that the partnerships are still strong, questions that had been lingering were given momentum last year when VMware bought Nicira, a significant step by the virtualization company into the crowded SDN field. Various moves by Cisco, VMware and EMC over the past year—such as the growing partnership between Lenovo and EMC in servers—have only fueled such speculation.

“For all the lip service given to [the Cisco-VMware alliance], that partnership for all intents and purposes is done,” Kerravala said. “That relationship is all but over.”

Now VMware—along with partners—is going in another direction with networking, though he said the virtualization vendor may have some hard lessons to learn. The company appears to view network virtualization the same way it does server virtualization. However, with server virtualization, organizations have reached the point where they run their tier-two and tier-three applications on virtual machines, but their most important workloads are still run on dedicated physical servers, Kerravala said.

That really can’t happen with networks. Businesses can’t decide to run some of their jobs on virtual networks and others on physical networks, he said.

“You only have one network,” Kerravala said. “I think VMware thinks networking is easier to do than it really is.”

Jeffrey Burt is senior editor with eWEEK. Follow him on Twitter.


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