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The Virtual Networking Prophet -- An Interview with Martin Casado of Nicira

Living proof that Casado and Nicira are doing some great things in the network virtualization arena.

In the world of technology, and specifically networking, there are a lot of smart people out there. Most days, I like to think that I am one of them, having passed the CCIE certification and having created numerous advanced virtualization video training courses. However, if you are lucky, there will be a few days in your career when you get to talk to someone that you know is going to change the world of technology -- for everyone.

I was honored to be granted an interview Martin Casado, who is one such person. Like you, I hadn't heard (that is, until recently) of Casado or the company he founded, Nicira. Nicira isn't a household name or even a name mentioned in most data centers. However, if you took a quick read of his personal homepage at Stanford, there are very few people in the world who as impressive credentials as he. Casado earned his masters and PhD in computer science from Stanford and he's a member of the Stanford high-performance networking research group. He invented a network protocol called OpenFlow, now used around the world. And, Martin is an ultra-marathon runner (for those who think that is a low-calorie marathon like ultra-light beer, you're wrong).

However, all those credentials aren't what makes him special. Rather, it's his vision of how networks will change and his actions that are making that dream into a reality that make him exceptional and prophetic.

Read more and you may understand why I feel the way I do.

David Davis: Who are you, what do you do, and what motivates you to come into work every day?
I am Martin Casado, I am the CTO and co-founder of Nicira. I am incredibly fortunate because every day I get to work on an amazing opportunity, virtualizing the network. You only get to reset how an industry operates once, maybe twice in a lifetime (if you are lucky). I am doubly fortunate because I work with an incredibly talented team that is transforming the industry by creating truly flexible infrastructure. That is what network virtualization delivers.

Give us some quick background on Niciria.
Nicira was founded by Scott Shenker, Nick McKeown and myself in 2007. We have just passed 100 people and are based in Palo Alto, CA. Our investors have shown their confidence with over $50M in funding. Nicira's solution is called the Network Virtualization Platform (NVP). Morever, we started shipping in July 2011 and are in production with some of the largest cloud service providers/telcos, enterprises and government agencies around the world.

Enterprises have their favorite flavor of networking gear and, for the most part, seem happy. Why is Nicira relevant to them?
Nicira is not about replacing networking gear. That is a misconception.

It's important to remember that we're quickly approaching a world in which the infrastructure is a generic resource that is consumed and repurposed by software. When server virtualization was introduced, the question wasn't whether IT was happy with their server hardware. It was whether the customer wanted a far more flexible model for managing compute by using a new layer of software in conjunction with the existing physical gear.

Nicira is doing the same for the network. We are using the software vSwitch within the hypervisor to virtualize the physical network. With this, the network operational model will match that of compute. Virtual networks can be created, grown, moved, and dynamically configured on demand without touching or configuring the hardware.

So the question is not "are you happy with your existing physical gear,” but rather, do you want your network to have the same flexibility and vendor independence as your compute.

For the OSI layer guys, what layer does Nicira work at and why?
Nicira virtualizes layers 2-7. What that means is that virtual networks provided by Nicira support L2 services, L3 services and a growing number of L4-7 services. NVP only requires L3 reachability in the physical network. So whether that network runs an L2-only protocol such as TRILL or runs traditional L3, NVP will support it. In fact, we have customers who use Infiniband (IPOIB) for the physical network.

Is it software or hardware? What hypervisors does it work on?
Our product is software-only and runs on standard x86 servers. We currently support all hypervisors.

Name three of your biggest customers.
We are fortunate to be working with several dozen customers around the world. Some of the first ones which have publicly stepped forward with Nicira include AT&T, Rackspace, NTT, and eBay.

Who are your biggest competitors?
Our biggest competitor is the status quo. Einstein is rumored to have once said compound interest was the most powerful force in the universe, but he could have substituted inertia. We have been shipping a full virtual network solution for nearly a year now. And while there is a lot more movement in this space lately, we were not only the first to market with a distributed edge overlay approach, but really we have the only production-ready solution for large service provider and enterprise data centers. The rest of the industry including VMware, Cisco, and Microsoft have acknowledged that tunneling is the right approach, and we're going to see a lot of announcements from them in the upcoming months. But for the moment, we're well ahead.

That said, it is still difficult for organizations to consume disruptive technologies. Virtual networking in particular blurs the line between the server, networking, and security, and getting all of the teams to buy off on such an approach can be a challenge. However, the benefits are really compelling, and that is why despite the challenges, we have been able to attract a number of the largest companies in the world as customers.

For the CCIEs who spent the last 10 years learning Cisco gear and the IOS, why, and when, should they start learning Nicira's solution?
Going forward, there are going to be two types of network: the physical network and the virtual network. There will still be the need to architect and implement great physical networks. In fact, virtual network solutions such as ours will make this task much easier by relieving the pressure of the physical network to support complicated network policies which often limit redundancy, resulting in oversubscription. Traditional networking training is still very relevant for designing and managing the physical network.

However, the virtual network is here now, and edge overlays are a leading approach backed by the leaders in the industry. If network engineers want also to have purview over this domain, they will need to understand the new model. We think this is a shared responsibility between the server and network admins.

What do you think has to happen before Nicira becomes better known in the data center?
While physical network vendors are not going away, along with the emergence of the virtual networking layer, will come new players. The market is just coming to terms with this. NVP is a new element in the infrastructure stack, virtual networking. The journey actually began several years ago with the emergence of networking capabilities from the server virtualization vendors like VMware.

I hear that you all have some very smart engineers and investors. Can you give us some name or qualifications that impress us?
Our team is so good it's really difficult to choose whom to highlight. I am very lucky to work with the pioneers who

  • initially designed OpenFlow (for more on OpenFlow see this presentation from Greg Ferro of PackPushers and presentation with Greg and Martin on PacketPushers)
  • did much of the initial work behind the SDN movement,
  • the core developers of Open vSwitch,
  • the engineering lead for VMware's vswitch and virtual distributed switch,
  • the VP of engineering for all of JunOS at Juniper,
  • the director of the Nexus 1000v at Cisco,
  • the technical lead for MPLS (who was also a Cisco fellow).

I hear that you are a marathon runner (as I aspire to do more of): What is your favorite marathon?
I enjoy running ultra-marathons. I suppose my favorite is Coyote Two Moon 100 Miler. However, it is my favorite in part because I've never been able to finish it. I also very much enjoy Javelina Jundred (yes, that's spelled right), a 100-mile run outside of Phoenix that is held close to Halloween. Javelina is great because it has a party atmosphere, complete with costumes and rowdy aid stations.

I find the future of network infrastructure, network virtualization, and software defined networking (SDN) to be fascinating. I have no doubt that these technologies, and Martins' company, will continue to evolve and grow until they are household names to IT pros, around the world.

The network is virtualizing and changing. My advice? Start learning about network virtualization and network hypervisors today.

A big thank you to Martin for doing this interview! I hope to meet you one day at an upcoming conference. Besides inspiring me to continue learning about network virtualization, you also inspire me to get back to running again, as I have a race coming up!

About the Author

David Davis is a well-known virtualization and cloud computing expert, author, speaker, and analyst. David’s library of popular video training courses can be found at Pluralsight.com. To contact David about his speaking schedule and his latest project, go to VirtualizationSoftware.com.

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