If everything goes according to plan, something like "All your datacenters are belong to us" (to paraphrase the famous Internet meme) may soon be server virtualization giant VMware's victorious cry.
Steve Herrod, VMware's CTO, certainly appears to be giving hints to that effect, with his blog entry on the "software-defined datacenter" from this month's Interop in Las Vegas. Herrod's vision is of a data center where everything is virtualized and controlled in software. Network and server configuration, capacity management and application deployment and management will all be handled from a virtualization console, and you'd certainly imagine that he'd want that console to be a VMware one.
Configuring and manipulating servers in software is relatively straightforward if the servers in question are virtual, so that part of software-defined datacenter is in the bag as far as VMware is concerned. But the tricky bit is networking, and all the reconfiguration of network hardware that needs to be done on an almost continual basis in most data centers.
As Herrod puts it, "In an ideal world, no longer do we need to order some specialized hardware, then hire a consultant to install it and program the device in its specialized language."
"Instead, we'll simply define an application and all of the resources that it needs, including all of its compute, storage, networking and security needs, then group all of those things together to create a logical application. There's work ahead," Herrod continues, "but I see the software-defined datacenter as enabling this dramatic simplification."
That's where an upstart startup called Nicira comes in to the story. Nicira came out of stealth mode recently with network virtualization software that aims to do for networking what VMware's server virtualization software does for servers — rendering the underlying hardware largely irrelevant by making networking a software activity that's abstracted from the hardware. Nicira uses the IP forwarding capabilities of the networking gear, but a separate software-based network controller does all the complex stuff that allows virtual networks to be configured and reconfigured on the fly.
Nicira's system makes use of the vSwitch software in VMware's hypervisor, but there are also other types of virtual networking that are based on VXLANs and the OpenFlow networking protocol. OpenFlow also allows networks to be reconfigured by a central network controller, but the networking hardware in question has to support OpenFlow.
That's beginning to be less of an issue than it once was, though. HP, for example, announced at Interop that OpenFlow will be supported though its product line. In any case, with HP's announcement, companies like Nicira, and other startups using OpenFlow such as Big Switch Networks, network virtualization is increasingly finding itself in the news.
Going back to Steve Herrod and his software-defined data center, it's clear that while its server virtualization technology has given VMware the springboard it needs to become a major player in cloud services, this same technology is not sufficient to ensure that it becomes the dominant player in the software-defined data center. For that it would need network virtualization technology to complement its server technology. In fact, what it would need is Nicira, or a company very much like it.
So keep an eye on VMware. If it makes a significant network virtualization acquisition in the near future, that will be the sign that it indeed intends to dominate the software-defined data center of tomorrow in the same way that it currently dominates the virtualized data center of today.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.