Nicira Goes Live: Meet Our Network Virtualization Platform

Nicira, a much-buzzed-about network virtualization startup already known for the marquee networking industry talent it's attracted, exited stealth mode Monday, revealing early details about its customers, products and go-to-market strategy.

The Monday launch includes what Nicira called its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP), a software system for creating a distributed virtual network infrastructure that's designed for cloud-ready data centers.

The hook, according to Nicira, is that the system is decoupled and independent from physical network hardware -- in theory, maximizing flexibility and efficiency and bringing to networking a similar model to the one that's served companies like VMware well in creating virtual machines.

In its launch release, Nicira points out that "while applications have been decoupled from servers through compute virtualization, they have not yet been decoupled from the network through any type of scalable network virtualization. As a result, virtualized data centers face limits to what applications they can support and where workloads can be placed."

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Stephen Mullaney, Nicira's CEO, said the NVP would be the "final pivotal piece" many customers would need to fully embrace cloud computing.

"The largest, most forward-thinking cloud providers are laser-focused on operations and economics, the two benefits Nicira delivers," Mullaney said in a statement.

NVP is implemented at a network edge and managed via what Nicira describes as a "distributed clustered controller architecture." The software system itself treats the physical network as an IP backplane -- allowing Nicira's system to create virtual networks that can offer the same services, such as security and QoS, as physical networks.

NVP works with any data center network hardware, Nicira said. It is available as a usage-based, monthly subscription-pricing model that can scale by the virtual network port.

Nicira has been selling the software since July 2011 and has quickly emerged as a top-of-mind vendor in the movement around software-defined networking (SDN), which also includes startups like Big Switch Networks and other backers of the OpenFlow communications protocol, and virtualized switching vendors like Pica8.

Nicira was founded by Stanford University researchers Martin Casado and Nick MeKeown and University of California at Berkeley researcher Scott Shenker, and is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners and New Enterprise Associates, along with individual investors such as Diane Greene, the co-founder and former CEO of VMware, and Andy Rachleff, co-founder of Benchmark Capital. The company has raised $50 million in investment funding thus far.

Nicira also revealed that AT&T, eBay, Fidelity Investments, Rackspace and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) are among its early customers. Rackspace President Lew Moorman said that the NVP was a "game-changer." Rackspace has worked with Nicira since 2009.

"Nicira's product and industry contributions with OpenStack are tightly aligned with our strategy to bring together the most innovative and open technology with our own fanatical support. Together we are bringing enterprise private networking to the cloud," Moorman said in a statement.

Nicira executives were not immediately available for additional comment Monday.

Nicira garnered plenty of buzz in 2011 not only for rumors of its network virtualization technology but also for the high-profile hires it made from Cisco and Juniper. Alan Cohen, Cisco's former vice president for enterprise and public sector, joined Nicira as vice president of marketing in October 2011, and Cisco Fellow Bruce Davie left in January 2012 to become Nicira's chief service provider architect.

Rob Enns, an 11-year Juniper veteran and previously its vice president, engineering, Junos Core and vice president, engineering, Edge & Aggregation Business Unit, joined Nicira in January 2011 as vice president, engineering. And Paul Fazzone, former director of product management and strategy for Nexus products at Cisco, was an even earlier sign-on, becoming Nicira's vice president, product management in April 2010.

CEO Mullaney is a veteran of Palo Alto Networks, Blue Coat, Force10, Cisco, Growth Networks, ShoreTel, Bay Networks and SynOptics. Casado, who is also CTO, previously co-founded Illuminics Systems, an IP analytics company acquired in 2006 by Quova.

The company's board includes Mullaney, Casado, McKeown, Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Ben Horowitz, and Rachleff.

In a recent post to Casado's Network Heresy blog titled "Why Nicira Says Networking Doesn't Need a VMware," Nicira's Andrew Lambeth sought to address why server virtualization and network virtualization are different animals.

"Virtualized servers are effectively self contained in that they are only very loosely coupled to one another (there are a few exceptions to this rule, but even then, the groupings with direct relationships are small). As a result, the virtualization logic doesn't need to deal with the complexity of state sharing between many entities," Casado wrote.

"A virtualized networking solution, on the other hand, has to deal with all ports on the network, most of which can be assumed to have a direct relationship (the ability to communicate via some service model)," he continued. "Therefore, the virtual networking logic not only has to deal with N instances of N state (assuming every port wants to talk to every other port), but it has to ensure that state is consistent (or at least safely inconsistent) along all of the elements on the path of a packet. Inconsistent state can result in packet loss (not a huge deal) or much worse, delivery of the packet to the wrong location."