Analysis: Any Parallels Between Oracle/Xsigo, VMware/Ncira?


Oracle's decision to acquire network virtualization technology developer Xsigo Systems seems to have answered the question of whether Oracle would eventually acquire a networking company.

However, that answer leads to several more questions about what Oracle will get when it closes its acquisition of Xsigo, expected sometime this year, including what it means to customers and how it might impact traditional networking vendors.

With San Jose, Calif.-based Xsigo, Oracle gets a virtualized networking fabric built on Xsigo's I/O Director appliance. The I/O Director sits between servers and the core Ethernet and storage networking infrastructure to provide the servers with virtual network interface cards and virtual host-bus adapters. Each server can be connected to up to 64 virtual resources, with high availability possible by routing paths through two separate I/O Directors.

[Related: Analysis: Nicira Buy To Bring VMware Closer To OpenStack, Networking Vendors]

The I/O Director is not a switch itself, but instead creates high-speed virtual LAN and SAN connections that connect servers to the core networking equipment. Those virtual LAN and SAN connections can be created and configured as needed. The I/O Director is managed by the company's Xsigo Fabric Manager software.

The physical servers connect to the I/O Director via an InfiniBand or a 10-Gbit Ethernet host adapter card. A second host adapter card can be installed in a server for redundancy.

Oracle is touting Xsigo as its entry to software-defined networking, or SDN, which has led to the acquisition being compared to VMware's planned acquisition of SDN developer Nicira.

However, there are some fundamental differences in the two acquisitions and the technologies involved.

Nicira is regarded as a pioneer in developing SDN technology, where it has taken advantage of work it has done with the open-source OpenStack cloud community to develop the technology to handle the movement of data packets to their final destination over a virtual network based on virtual switches and routers. It is the Nicira software that handles the movement of the data.

Xsigo's I/O Director, meanwhile, virtualizes the connections from the servers to the core network to provide a flexible way of configuring the required data paths from the servers as needed. It does not create virtual switches. However, said Jon Toor, vice president of marketing at Xsigo, it can make use of virtual switches created by VMware.

NEXT: Xsigo, Nicira And SDN

Xsigo's Toor said the technology is a part of the move toward SDN. "Ideally, you have SDN inside and outside the data center," he said. "To make it work, you need a Layer 2 network, which is defined by software, not hardware. That level of flexibility and the ability to configure the network is what we do."

This is despite the fact that Xsigo's technology has yet to support OpenFlow, the open networking technology that handles the movement of data packets instead of leaving that movement up to software in the switches and routers.

"We don't yet support OpenFlow," he said. "Even if we did, customers wouldn't be using it. We don't have a single customer running OpenFlow, except a few testing it. We have our API set up with one set of commands, but it could be set up to work with OpenFlow when needed."

Despite the technological differences, Xsigo and Nicira pave the way for simplifying networks while adding performance, making it potentially easier for customers to build converged and cloud infrastructures.

With Nicira, VMware will be able to let customers configure virtual networks similar to how it currently enables the configuration of virtual servers. Combined with its own virtual storage capabilities and the virtual storage technology of many of its storage vendor partners, VMware expects customers will be able to build data centers based entirely on software running on powerful physical servers.

For Oracle, whose strategy has been to closely tie its industry-leading software with hardware from its acquisition of Sun Microsystems into integrated appliances, Xsigo is an opportunity to add a networking layer.

Oracle already has server and storage technology from Sun, its own middleware and applications, and its own Oracle VM virtualization technology. It has optimized those technologies to work with each other and integrated them to develop what it calls pre-engineered systems, including the Oracle Exadata Database Machine, Oracle Big Data Appliance, and Oracle Exalytics In-Memory Machine reporting and analysis server.

Oracle plans to extend that integration to its new Xsigo technology.

NEXT: Oracle's Plans For Xsigo

Oracle, in a FAQ on the subject, wrote, "Xsigo complements Oracle's software, server, storage, and network product portfolio and enhances Oracle's capability to seamlessly integrate industry leading products and solutions into enterprise clouds while dramatically reducing the complexity and cost of deploying and managing the infrastructure for cloud enabled systems."

Such a move would make Oracle the only vendor to build converged infrastructures with storage, server and networking technology combined with middleware and application software. Most of Oracle's primary systems vendor competitors, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell and Cisco, can go as far as servers, storage and networking in their converged infrastructures.

Because Xsigo's I/O Director replaces Layer 2 networking switches and routers, Oracle's acquisition of Xsigo could impact sales of traditional networking vendors. By Xsigo estimates, its technology could result in 70 percent fewer switches, server cards, and cables being used. "Some customers start with 20 cables coming from a single server and consolidate it down to two," Toor said.

As a result, how much impact Oracle will have on the networking industry depends in part on how quickly sales of Oracle's pre-engineered systems grow.

Oracle also promised to make the Xsigo technology available to non-Oracle customers as well. However, in Oracle's recent history, it has a tendency to be much more focused on integrating its technology into its pre-engineered systems rather than selling stand-alone offerings. For instance, since its acquisition of Sun, Oracle's stand-alone server and storage revenue has steadily fallen even as its pre-engineered systems sales have quickly grown, albeit from a small starting base.

Toor said Xsigo technology is not typically used to rip out existing networking infrastructure. "The most common use is when customers are touching the servers, for instance to upgrade the servers or the networking equipment," he said.

Xsigo as a stand-alone company had a very nice run and mounted a very significant challenge to networking vendors, said Keith Norbie, vice president of Nexus, the Minnetonka, Minn., office of Stratos Management Services, an Atlanta-based solution provider and Xsigo channel partner.

"Is Oracle's acquisition of Xsigo a reaction to VMware's acquisition of Ncira?" Norbie said. "Or is it a long-term play by Oracle against Cisco in networking? In either case, Xsigo has a cool technology. It can fit into an SDN play if Oracle wants to make it a part of an all-Oracle stack."

NEXT: But What About The VMware Demo Truck?

Nexus' Norbie also said he is waiting to see how VMware handles the fact that Xsigo technology is in its VMware Express 18-wheeler mobile demo truck.

"Will VMware need to rip it out?" Norbie said. "Or maybe VMware doesn't care. VMware wants to embrace other hypervisors, other cloud platforms. It seems willing to embrace non-VMware environments to expand its markets."

Oracle declined to provide further information other than to point to information available online. Xsigo declined to respond to questions about Oracle's plans but did discuss its own technology not related to questions about the pending acquisition.

PUBLISHED AUG. 1, 2012