VMworld and the Future of Networking

VMworld 2016 in Las Vegas was an especially hectic one for me, and ultimately a very satisfying event as well. In addition to my normal schedule of breakouts, customer meetings, and analyst briefings, I was responsible for organizing a new networking event that took place alongside VMworld, called future:net. Whereas VMworld is mostly about talking to customers about how our technology addresses their relatively immediate requirements, future:net was a vendor-neutral event that explored the changing landscape of networking technology and took more of a long-term view. Seeing these two perspectives side-by-side was a really instructive way to look at where networking is heading.

VMworld was notable for the number of NSX customers who appeared on the main stage or in breakout sessions to talk about how NSX is solving their networking problems today. By contrast, future:net featured many discussions of problems that are not yet solved. Networking for containers, for example, is pretty clearly not yet “done.” The networking and security challenges of moving to public clouds were another topic receiving plenty of attention.

microservice network

There have been a few articles published about future:net already (here, here, and here), plus a podcast with Greg Ferro and Ethan Banks of The PacketPushers. Videos of most of the talks are now available on the future:net website. The complexity of dealing with networking and security in the modern world was a recurring theme. Thomson Reuters’ Mark Bluhm gave a compelling talk on his challenges with public cloud adoption. While new technologies such as clouds and containers bring great power and opportunities for efficiency, they raise a host of challenges that aren’t readily addressed by traditional networking.

My takeaway from listening to these varied perspectives over four days is that we need to help customers transition to a new approach to networking. In the past (and for most enterprises, this still holds true) you owned your own infrastructure, and your main challenges were how to make that infrastructure more responsive to business needs in terms of agility, security, and availability. In the new world, those challenges don’t go away, but it’s just as likely that the infrastructure itself is no longer owned by the business. This means we don’t just need better infrastructure, but a new approach to networking that abstracts away the infrastructure. Or to put it another way, we can’t just keep doing the same old networking tasks a bit better, we need to be able to do new things with networking.

The most obvious example of a “new thing” we need is consistent networking and security capabilities across multiple clouds, public or private. This topic came up repeatedly at future:net and was also one of the main subjects of the opening VMworld keynote. When Pat Gelsinger and Guido Appenzeller announced VMware’s new Cross-Cloud Architecture, they were joined by several current NSX customers, from CITI, Columbia Sportswear, GE, and Johnson and Johnson. These are people who are solving today’s networking problems, but they are also the forward-thinking ones who see the need for a new approach to networking.

The Power of Abstraction

This new world demands new and more powerful abstractions — a theme picked up by Nick McKeown in his future:net keynote. Just as server virtualization abstracted computational hardware with the virtual machine, network virtualization has provided the virtual network abstraction. The realization that we made about a year ago was that this doesn’t just mean you can run any hardware in your own data center — it means that you don’t even have to care whose network infrastructure you are using. As Simon Crosby of Bromium said at future:net, “In the future, the user will be sitting in Starbucks and accessing the cloud…and your [enterprise] network will be irrelevant.”

As a recent Gartner report put it, the predominant usage of public clouds by enterprises in 2020 will be hybrid. If part of your application runs on AWS, and another part runs in your own private data center, or in another public cloud, network virtualization can abstract away that disparity so that you see a single network with all the same addressing, security services, monitoring and management. This is the power of implementing networking capabilities in software that’s independent of underlying hardware — it’s relatively easy to deploy the same network capabilities on any infrastructure, even parts that you don’t own.

A few years ago, we made the observation that network virtualization was one of the capabilities that could enable typical enterprises to be more like the megascale data center operators. Indeed, the megascale operators, as we heard at future:net, use their own software to abstract away the hardware from their applications. But what is increasingly apparent is that abstraction goes further than that, to enable applications to be developed and deployed on any number of different public clouds or on private infrastructure, leveraging the unique capabilities of each of those environments.

A recurring theme at VMworld was that NSX could be a bridge from solving the problems of today to tackling the emerging and unseen requirements of tomorrow. As more of our customers recognize how important their digital business is to future growth, they are embracing network virtualization as part of a long-term strategy. The most innovative companies recognize that it’s not enough to do the same old things a bit better, and they are embracing new approaches. I’m not about to claim that we’ve solved all problems in networking, but I do see a future in which networking, decoupled from any particular choice of hardware or infrastructure provider, allows customers to successfully move their businesses forward by embracing the best new technologies available.

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