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Network Virtualization: Next Battlefront for Your Data Center

3 Sep , 2013  

Everyone’s very familiar with server virtualization technology (VMware, Hyper-V, Xen, KVM); creating virtual server instances instead of matching server hardware up with a single operating system. Most medium and many small sized business have carved out a server virtualization strategy and are well down the path of virtualizing the computer room or data center. Virtualizing servers is an established best practice.

What you may not realize is the heated battle between vendors to virtualize the network is in full gear (network virtualization or Software Defined Networks). Combatants include well established companies such as Cisco, VMware and IBM, open source initiatives like OpenStack, university research programs, and industry organizations and standards including OpenFlow (ONF), NfV (ETSI), and OpenDaylight (Linux Foundation).

Consider network virtualization an open battlefield where new entrants and established players see an opportunity to unseat traditional network vendors, most notably Cisco. During August 2013’s VMworld Expo, VMware pre-announced their NSX network hypervisor. HP and Juniper co-announced plans to integrate VMware NSX with their respective SDN controllers and Layer 2 gateways.

Keeping up on all that’s happening in network virtualization can be challenging for network engineers and IT managers in small-to-medium sized businesses. What’s occurring is more than just an incremental move to virtualize elements within of the network. SDN and virtualization are fundamentally redefining how we design and think about data networks, emphasizing software functionality over traditional network hardware, dynamic network creation/reconfiguration through OpenFlow and network controllers, collapsing network functions into multi-purpose network devices, and performing network administration tasks through APIs and scripting languages such as Python and Django framework. These represent substantial, if not fundamental, changes in how we design and manage networks today, and the network engineering skills necessary.

What should IT and network engineering organizations do to prepare for network virtualization?

  1. Build new network engineering skills through exposure to existing server and storage virtualization technologies, and script development with Python, Django and web services (popular scripting languages used in SDN open source initiatives).
  2. Leverage existing virtual network technologies such as software-based network elements (firewalls, load balancers, etc.) including those provided through Amazon Web Services, network vendor offerings such as the Cisco Nexus platform, open source and 3rd party software options (Kemp’s load balancer for example).
  3. Review and educate you and your team on the virtualization strategies of your current or desired key vendors. Keep in mind their strategies can range from supporting industry collaboration and open source, to more defensive and proprietary approaches.
  4. Outline for vendors your interests and plans for network virtualization.
  5. Require vendors begin to virtualize traditional hardware-only network products and appliances. You can bet your enterprise IT counterparts are doing the same.

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IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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