Are enterprises ready for network virtualization?

Chris Harney works as a consultant for VMware resellers and consultants, and he also runs a well-populated virtualization user group in New England named VTUG (Virtual Technology User Group). He's regularly out and about working with companies and people who work with enterprises on a daily basis.

Network World was interested in doing a story about network virtualization and where it is in terms of  adoption. We asked him to reach out to some of his VTUG members to see if any of them would be willing to talk to us. "Honestly, it's not something I've spent any real time thinking about, so it'd be a waste of time," one user responded. Harney got dozens of similar responses. Implementing virtual networking just isn't a top-of-mind issue for his members.  

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What to watch for at VMworld

Virtual networking has been called by some the next big thing in the industry. Perhaps proponents have reason to be optimistic about a decade ago hypervisors let servers more efficiently utilize compute resources by creating virtual machines. Why can't abstracting networking functions from the underlying hardware to be controlled through software be as big of an occasion?

"There's still some apprehension to go all in with (virtual networking)," Harney says. "There's a lot of trust that has to happen there. I think we'll get there, but it will take some time."

VMware is trying to perhaps speed things along this week. A major focus of the company's annual VMworld conference in San Francisco is on the software defined data center, which includes virtual networking. The company announced at the show that its premier virtual networking software, NSX, will be generally available by the fourth quarter of this year.

It's a natural move for VMware the company last year spent $1.2 billion to buy Nicira, one of the darlings of the budding virtual networking movement, whose leader Martin Casado is one of the visionary architects of the OpenFlow protocol, the basis for many virtual networking capabilities.

A year ago, Casado, who is now chief networking architect at VMware, said the conversations he was having with potential customers was around market education. Today, people know what network virtualization is and now they want to know how they can implement it. VMware cites enterprise customers like GE Appliances, WestJet, eBay and Citigroup as being some of its customers. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger told Network World in a recent  interview that today's adopters represent "lighthouse accounts" for the company.

IDC Analyst Brad Casemore says the earliest adopters of this technology have been hyperscale technology businesses and cloud service providers who have dynamic networking needs and high virtual machine density. "The enterprise market is going to take a bit longer to come around," he says. But, VMware highlighting early customer wins is an important key to proving out this technology's functionality.

Not every company will experience the pains that virtual networking will help solve though, he adds; even today there are enterprises that have yet to virtualize their compute layer and still run on mainframes or bare metal servers. As companies adopt private clouds in their data centers, as virtual machine density increases and network demands become more dynamic, this technology will make more and more sense, Casemore says.  

Vice president of engineering at hosting and cloud provider LogicWorks Jason McKay says the company has been in production with a virtual networking environment for months as part of VMware's beta program for NSX. "Networking is absolutely central to what we do," he says. As a service provider, the company creates customized, right-sized dedicated networks for customers, so this virtual networking technology has dramatically eased the management of creating and maintaining networks for customers, he says. "We're constantly bringing up new clients," he says. "Clients are expanding, bringing in new applications, so for us the network is very much a moving target. You can see how network virtualization would play right into that."

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On the enterprise side, things are moving a little more slowly. Steve Morris is an engineer with Cloud Fusion Ltd., a consultancy in England that works specifically with the financial services industry. "There's a lot of appetite for virtual networking, but it's a bit like the early days of server virtualization: Everyone recognizes it a good thing, but they're a little apprehensive about how to use it," he says.

He recently installed some virtual networking features mostly virtual LANs for a leading English financial services company who was looking to ramp up the company's creation of new applications. Miller says he discussed an even broader deployment across the organization, but he felt the technology was too limiting to implement it. The firewalling, load balancing and other higher-level networking functions just weren't at a maturity point where it could be considered for a larger-scale deployment.

As part of the release of NSX platform, Casado says that virtual firewalling and load balancing features are included, while enhancements to these features and other higher-level networking services are on the road map for the product down the line.

Casemore, the IDC analyst, says one other thing that will be just as important as the technology maturing is the comfort level of IT practitioners. Virtual networking requires networking teams to work more closely with the server infrastructure managers and application handlers. Breaking down those IT silos to have a more converged IT strategy is not something that happens overnight.

Senior Writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing for Network World and NetworkWorld.com. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW. Read his Cloud Chronicles here.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "Are enterprises ready for network virtualization?" was originally published by Network World.

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