VMware scales its virtual switches to tackle NFV, old school networkers

Software-defined networks are getting serious, at scale

Network function virtualization is moderately obscure stuff, seeing as it is mostly intended for the plumbing of carrier networks. But VMware’s new play in the field with what it reckons a proper, 5G-ready effort, is notable for a couple of reasons.

One is that to deliver network function virtualization (NFV), the company has given the NSX Managed Virtual Distributed Switch a serious makeover. The company claims the switch is now between three and five times faster than its predecessors – and not just in a lab when doing nothing but shifting packets.

VMware’s found that speed with some of its own cunning and also by tapping the Linux Foundation’s DPDK data plane development kit, libraries and drivers for fast packet processing.

That matters because VMware’s showing that virtual switches on Xeon-powered servers can handle telco-scale traffic, which makes it easier for the company and others to make the case for NSX as a general-purpose networking framework on servers with DPDK-aware NICs.

NSX has unashamedly been aimed at the big end of town so far, but VMware foreshadowed a push to smaller vSphere users too on its Q1 earnings call. That push – and sales to bigger customers – should now be more resistant to FUD about scale.

Another notable item is that VMware’s added intent-based networking in this release. The company is using the same language that Cisco’s championed and the same definition of making networks do the bidding of the business rather than just shunting packets where they are told to go.

VMware’s baked intent into “VMware vCloud NFV-OpenStack 3.0”. The company has had its own OpenStack for a while, but making it a frontline product is new. It’s done so because, as explained to The Register by CTO and veep Bruce Davie, telcos now regard OpenStack APIs as the open interfaces that matter, rather than things like Border Gateway Protocol. VMware’s therefore going where telcos want to be – and it isn’t vSphere.

This is where VMware’s decision to maintain a version of NSX not tied to vSphere – NSX-T - will bear fruit, as it enhances OpenStack’s networking. The company thinks it can do likewise with other things from its portfolio, like secure multi-tenancy, resource allocation and network security. Those features have all made it into its new NFV play. APIs mean that other VMware tricks can be brought to bear, too.

VMware dominates server virtualization and most telcos will have vSphere somewhere, so this becomes another sphere in which VMware can tell customers they can do the new cool stuff like NFV, but keep the tools and skills they already possess.

VMware can therefore say it’s as open as telcos’ enthusiasm for NFV needs it to be, can match Cisco’s latest schtick but do it without dependency on proprietary hardware or compromising performance, and can help telcos package network functions as VMs or containers and can say it does it all across multiple clouds.

The company doesn’t need this argument to work in the entire industry, because even a few dozen telco customers are worth having given their size and likelihood of sticky incumbencies. And with telcos re-thinking their networks as they build for 5G, its also offering itself as one abstraction vendor to rule them all.

And almost no other vendor is doing that. ®

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