The Network Above the Hardware

Note: in general, I do not cross-post between my personal blog and work, but I received a note from a good friend who asked me if I was thinking about my years in Vermont when I wrote this.  Well, speaking of barriers, we wear the chains we forge in life.  Enjoy a cross over from my day job.

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

–       Mending Wall, Robert Frost

Throughout history, there have been many famous walls and armed fortifications.  Walls represent a form of structure that provide security and demarcate national or local boundaries.

Over time, though, all walls fall.

Walls do not fall because they were poorly constructed or do not fulfill their intended missions.   Walls drop because of failures of imagination, because the builders simply could not anticipate or prepare for a transformation.  Walls can also be leaped by transformations. Henry Ford’s assembly line changed the car industry forever.  In computing, the PC, and now the iPad, leapfrogged their predecessors.

The biggest transformation in information technology today is how information is produced, managed, and consumed.  Sometimes people refer to this trend as “mobile, social and cloud.”   The traditional components of the IT stack (a.k.a. hardware and software) are moving into a maelstrom, pulling with them all of us who produce or consume IT.

Following this profound change in the computing world, networking is also transforming.  Client-server is giving way to cloud — a fluid, on-demand model of computing that transcends the enterprise IT model of the past few decades – and the operations and economics of the network must yield as well.   What is cloud if not a new approach to IT operations and economics?

For the first time in a long time, we on the infrastructure side must shift our perspective in a big way.   If you ask an Enterprise CIO, “in 10 years, how much of your infrastructure will be in your own data center run by your badged people?” what do you think they will say?  I have not checked with Gallup folks, but am willing to wager this number will be lower by on the order of 50%.

The network is the barrier to cloud, the keystone in the virtualization “trifecta.”  The server and the storage components gained the benefits of virtualization, but the network is the missing variable that completes the equation.

Network-wise, very little needed to change in the past two decades, the client-server era; thus networks have been relatively static.  Networks did what they were supposed to do.  Then came server virtualization.  Virtualization changed everything.

Virtualization liberated applications from being bound to physical servers, creating a new paradigm – workload mobility. This transformed the architecture and economics of compute.

Now the network is morphing, driving the need for a new software network “above the hardware.”  The software network creates a new operational and economic model to support cloud.  It lives to serve business velocity and operational efficiency.

The shift starts in the data center.   Hypervisors, the “Archimedes lever” of compute, are the focal point for data center networking — not just for computing capacity.  The new edge of the data center network is being pulled into the server, through a virtual switch.  Hence the physical data center network becomes a “pool of capacity” that is managed by software and not just a series of connected network islands.

These pools need to be flexible and programmable to support the change in the computing model.  And there is only one clear and present way to do this: the network needs to emulate the virtualization model of compute.

The network has never been more important:  it is the engine for communications and commerce. The sheer growth of the Internet, the power of enterprise, service provider and consumer networks have changed everything.

And network hardware will continue to play a critical role for decades to come.  It is a highway that keeps getting faster and performs more flawlessly in its core mission: packet forwarding.   The operational state of the data center network – the one that is mostly managed by people – is what is changing.  Continuing to chain the operations and policies to hardware is the technical and ideological wall that needs to come down, just as organizational boundaries in the data center are coming down.

As you can see from Nicira’s customers, market leaders who joined our launch today, these barriers are coming down.  Nicira sprints to market leaders who are transforming their businesses that are moving to the network above the hardware, reinventing the operations and economics of their data centers.

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