Networking

Why VMware's NSX must evolve to keep up in a serverless future

Hybrid cloud networking poses one of the more complex challenges for the enterprise. VMware believes that its NSX product can grow to support hybrid environments, including serverless computing.

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Image: iStockphoto/Vladimir_Timofeev

One of the challenges facing VMware is the growing competition to VMware's flagship vSphere virtualization platform. The source of competition exceeds Hyper-V, KVM, and public cloud IaaS.

Containers, microservices-based architectures, and serverless computing pose unique challenges not only to vSphere, but to NSX as well. With a reported $1 billion run rate, NSX is the growth engine within VMware. On Thursday, VMware announced a host of updates to the NSX platform to advance security, automation, and application continuity. I recently sat down with the VMware product team to understand their short and long term vision for NSX.

Open source roots

NSX is the successor of an open source project from a company called Nicira. After purchasing Nicira for $1 billion, VMware invested roughly a year of development integrating Nicira's platform with vSphere, and maintained a dual code base. One product, NSX-V, commonly referred to as NSX, is fully integrated with vSphere. The second product is NSX-T. NSX-T is closer in architecture to the original Nicira product, and it supports non-vSphere hypervisors including KVM.

SEE: VMworld 2016: VMware lays out its strategy for cross-cloud support

NSX-T was the upgrade path for Nicira customers. However, VMware has focused much of the development attention on NSX-V. VMware recently announced the first major update to NSX-T and at least the third major update to NSX-V, continuing the improvements on security, vSphere integration, and container management. I found the most interesting point of my conversation with VMware surrounding the potential of NSX-T.

Software is eating networking

There's an irony that Nicira co-founder Martin Casado now works as a general partner for Andreessen Horowitz (A16). A16Z coined the term software is eating the world. The irony is that NSX is an abstraction of physical networks and new approaches to application development are in turn eating legacy network concepts.

In place of traditional network concepts, solutions such as Docker expose concepts like network namespaces to developers. Serverless applications have little to no networking options presented to the developer, and there's limited traditional network knowledge needed in these development techniques. As these methods grow in popularity, solutions such as NSX must evolve to keep pace.

I understand how legacy environments benefit from NSX. It's obvious that VMware's now 2400 NSX customers know the value. My question to the NSX product team was how does a product that abstracts switches, firewalls, routers, and load balancers add value in a serverless infrastructure. VMware's belief is that NSX-T offers the flexibility needed to support hybrid environments including serverless.

Someone else's network

With just a single update within the last few years, I assumed NSX-T was an orphaned project within VMware. I was surprised to discover how integral NSX-T is to the future of VMware's support of hybrid network infrastructure. Much of the technology needed to support vSphere integration with public cloud IaaS originates with NSX-T.

VMware's chief technology strategy officer Guido Appenzeller demonstrated NSX running on AWS instances during VMworld 2015. The code required to create the micro-NSX instances on each AWS instance leveraged NSX-T code. In addition to IaaS platforms, VMware positions NSX-T for future integration with serverless and container orchestration platforms.

Serverless and container platforms hide the complexity of the network from developers. While the complexity is hidden, applications ultimately operate on traditional network concepts such as switches, routers, load balancers, and firewalls. VMware believes there's opportunity for NSX-T to facilitate the orchestration between microservices-based applications and the traditional network. Integration between NSX-V and NSX-T normalizes the network operations of hybrid cloud by providing a concept abstraction for managing across platforms.

Network virtualization remains a space to watch closely. While the network becomes invisible to developers, operations teams need a way to make the integration look seamless. NSX is one of many products positioned to help enterprises reach the goal of integrated network management.

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About Keith Townsend

Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 15 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. His areas of expertise include virtualization, networking, and storage solutions for Fo...

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