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VMware NSX: A Cloud Pitch To Sell SDN

Software defined networking is key to VMware's data center ambitions, so it's selling NSX-as-a-service through the vCloud Air public cloud.

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger called this week's vSphere 6 release the company's biggest ever, including 650 additions and features. But the VMware release that has the best potential for disrupting today's data center status quo is its new NSX network virtualization platform.

NSX springs out of VMware's $1.26 billion acquisition of Nicira in mid-2012. It represents a set of virtualized networking concepts based on the emerging field of software-defined networking that, in truth, few VMware customers have adopted yet. During VMware's Jan. 27 earnings call, Gelsinger said 400 customers use NSX. It's an encouraging start for a revisionist networking approach that moves configuration off the physical infrastructure and into an NSX application. But 400 amounts to a small fraction of VMware's total customer base.

However, VMware needs broad NSX adoption if it's going to carry forward its cherished concept of the software-defined data center, where virtual machines are commissioned and configured according to policies set in software. To do that, VMs must be assigned secure networks with the right amount of capacity. IT can't do that kind of dynamic allocation without virtualized networking, and VMware would like that work to be powered by NSX.

Rather than wait for customers to come to NSX, VMware is bringing NSX to customers in the form of software-as-a-service, offered through its vCloud Air public cloud service.

[Want to learn more about VMware's results, including NSX? See VMware: Cloud Management, Virtual Networking Paid Off In 2014.]

VCloud Air hybrid networking services is a technology preview that will bring NSX services from the cloud to the enterprise perimeter. VCloud Air can extend NSX networking features to a WAN network connection tied into the corporate network. Through that one WAN connection, NSX can generate the equivalent of 200 VLANs or secure connections to particular applications or resources inside the enterprise.

Creating virtual LANs has been a manpower-intensive and resource-heavy way to create secure connections in the past, explained Raghu Raghuran, VMware executive VP of VMware's Software-Defined Data Center unit, in an interview. NSX lets IT generate VLANs with fewer resources. Through five WAN connections, a vCloud Air customer could create 1,000 virtual networks, for example.

The NSX service lets customers who haven't adopted NSX create "hundreds of virtual networks spanning the private cloud and vCloud Air," said Raghuran. A development team that wants to do test and dev in the cloud, for example, could make use of the enterprise Active Directory system over an NSX-spawned virtual network, maintaining all the security of an encrypted VLAN.

VMware has enhanced NSX in vCloud Air in other ways. A user can define security groups that will isolate network traffic without IT having to create multiple virtual networks. The group will share a virtual network, or networks, as needed, with the required security characteristics. VMware called the feature "unique to the public cloud market." It allows a zero-trust security model that prevents all but authorized users from gaining access to the network.

NSX in vCloud Air supports Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) and Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) routing to simplify the integration of a customer's public cloud workloads and on-premises applications and resources. Relying on the protocols reduces the need for human network administrator intervention.

During a press and analyst event in San Francisco this week, Gelsinger pushed the idea that companies don't need to adopt NSX in their internal data center to sample its capabilities. "We will extend the boundary of NSX networking to their data center," he said.  

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