Startup Embrane Looks Beyond The SDN Trend

"SDNs tend to be very narrowly focused on Layer 2 and Layer 3, and that limits the scope of what's happening to that camp," Dante Malagrino, Embrane's president and CEO, told CRN. "Obviously, we think there is a much bigger picture that needs to be taken into account. If you start thinking of the concept of the software-defined data center, the entire data center is evolving; you're bringing in computing and storage and all the components. A lot of the agility requirements people have, whether network services like load balancing or VPN termination, that's a Layer 4-7 discussion, too."

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Embrane, which was founded in 2009, is ahead of the programmable infrastructure game on several fronts, not the least of which is that it's been out of stealth mode for nearly eight months and has a full-featured product to show for it.

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In December 2011, the company launched Heleos, what it calls a "distributed software platform for powering on-demand elastic network services such as load balancers, firewalls, virtual private networks and WAN optimization." Heleos essentially takes the programmable networking discussion into Layer 4-7 networking, and cloud providers and enterprise users leveraging the technology can use it to provide Infrastructure-as-a-Service functions as they build private, hybrid or public cloud environments.

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"This ties directly into the delivery of the apps," Malagrino said. "Over time, we see the evolution of the data center moving toward software-based architectures and scale-out systems. Heleos is not a forklift, rip-and-replace solution. We make sure it can co-exist with what people have already put in place and augment their existing network appliances."

The first individual Heleos product releases were the Elastic Services Manager (ESM), which is the management dashboard for the virtualized resources, and distributed virtual appliances (DVAs) covering things such as load balancing and VPN. Heleos runs on standard x86 servers and leverages off-the-shelf virtualization technology from any hypervisor vendor, according to the company.

Heleos customers pay for the software through one of two "keyless licensing" plans: an annual subscription or a usage-based model. Heleos ESM starts at $700 a month, and usage-based pricing starts at 16 cents an hour for 10 Mbps on a Heleos-powered load balancer and 8 cents an hour for 100 Mbps on a Heleos-powered firewall/VPN. Subscription-based pricing starts at $750 a year for the load balancer and $375 a year for the firewall/VPN.

Malagrino and Marco Di Benedetto, Embrane's co-founder and CTO, are Cisco alumni and were part of the engineering teams for Andiamo Systems and Nuova Systems, both of which were "spin-in" acquisitions covering storage and data center for Cisco. Other Embrane executives come from Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Palo Alto Networks and a host of other companies, and Embrane has raised about $28 million in funding in the past three years.

Malagrino and John Vincenzo, Embrane's vice president of marketing, said Embrane's emerging customer base is about 50-50 service providers and enterprises. What's changed in the past year, they agreed, is that most customers looking at data center optimization know that software will make their infrastructure more programmable, even if they don't know exactly how. That's a big difference, they noted, from the "deer in the headlights" expressions that greeted talk of programmable data centers back in 2009.

"Customers know they have to do something, they just don't know how to do it," Malagrino said. "If you think of SDN as a generic umbrella term, the whole wave of innovation driving this networking layer represents a great opportunity over the next few years."

Heleos is seeing adoption faster than Embrane's executives had anticipated six months ago, they said. As for the channel, Embrane is open to working with solution providers and, according Malagrino, is starting down that path.

"We have had very early conversations with a couple of more advanced, visionary channel partners, and we're probably going to be engaging with some of them," he said.

The role of traditional VARs and integrators in the context of SDN is still only vaguely defined, but the emerging nature of the trend creates an opportunity for channel partners willing to be thought leaders around programmable infrastructure, Malagrino said.

"Partners should consider that as much as there is that continues to be the same in networking, a lot of networking is also going to be delivered in a different way and used in a different way. The network of the future will be programmed, not administered," Malagrino said. "I mean, you look at the way a CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert] is today, that's not going to help you much in building software-defined networking. The channel needs to look at how companies like Embrane are packaging and delivering solutions and how they can complement that with their own expertise."