Day 1 of VMware’s 10th annual VMworld event was highlighted by the unveiling of its network virtualization product, NSX. The technology behind NSX came from the company’s highly-publicized billion-dollar-plus purchase of start-up, Nicira. During his keynote, CEO Pat Gelsinger stressed the importance of the network and claimed it was critical to the evolution of the software-defined data center (SDDC). There is validity in what Gelsinger is saying. as one really can’t build a flexible, agile, on-demand data center if the network doesn’t have the same attributes. So is NSX the game-changing technology that much of the media — and VMware — are hailing it to be?
Before we answer that question, let’s be clear on what NSX is. It’s a product that enables companies to create virtual overlays. However, it’s not a “software-defined network” solution. SDN may be one way to create virtual overlay networks but it’s not the only way. In addition, there are other ways to provision overlay networks — including VLANs, and Cisco’s OTV, among other methods — but VMware’s VXLAN based NSX does seem to have a fair amount of ecosystem support.
While NSX certainly has some potential to disrupt the networking market, I do think there are some significant hurdles that VMware needs to overcome:
First, while it’s a nice vision to have the networking functions moved to software, it’s just not practical right now. The traditional network vendors have poured millions into moving advanced networking features into custom silicon to enable scale and resiliency. This is one of the reasons why the NSX partner program is so important. Traditional network vendors, such as Brocade, Juniper, and HP, can provide many of the advanced features that require scale and performance and allow NSX to take on some of the control elements. When performance matters, so does hardware.
I also wonder if VMware really understands how hard it is to build network infrastructure. In several conversations with other network vendors (not Cisco) — some who are NSX partners, some who aren’t — I heard VMware described as having a high level of arrogance when it comes to networking, and as being almost dismissive of any challenges a traditional network vendor may bring up. I’m curious as to how “friendly” VMware will remain with many of the NSX partners. VMware wants to do more and more, and have almost become “Oracle”-like, in the sense that the company is trying to build an end-to-end solution where no partners are needed. Right now, many of the partners need VMware, with the thought being that this is the best chance to upset the Cisco apple cart, but long term we may see some of those partners alienated.
Finally, I believe the official release of NSX will accelerate the demise of the Cisco/VMware relationship. In the analyst Q&A session with Gelsinger and VMware COO Eschenbach, one of the analysts asked about why Cisco wasn’t one of the NSX partners, and what the status of the partnership was. Gelsinger wouldn’t even address the issue and jokingly passed the buck to Eschenbach, who gave some generic comment like, “we’re 60-80% and they’re 60-80% of their market, so we need to work together”. Blah, blah. Yeah right. The fact that Gelsinger himself wouldn’t address it spoke volumes. Also, both VMware and Cisco want to be the main point of control in the data center, and that just doesn’t work. The data center is a land grab right now, and Gelsinger is right: both companies do have 60-80% of their respective markets, so they almost have to compete with each other to grow.
So is NSX a game changer? It certainly changes the dynamics of the Cisco relationship, and potentially the relationship with other network vendors. Will it change how networks are built and managed, and have everything move to software? I think that’s unlikely right now, but long term, who knows? In my opinion, VMware opened up a can of worms that’s much more complex than they realize.