Like server virtualization, network virtualization is about consolidating data center resources. But the similarities stop there.
That's because the main argument in support of network virtualization isn't about ditching all your old switches (at least not right away) and saving thousands on hardware maintenance, although this is certainly part of it. And, to equate network virtualization with the decades-old practice of creating multiple virtual LANs (VLANs) on a single piece of network hardware vastly oversimplifies the concept.
Indeed, just about the only thing that's safe to say as we start 2009 is that network virtualization is a moving target -- after all, the technologies and standards underlying it are still in flux. But interest is building because the main technical benefit is much easier to articulate: Network virtualization will vastly improve an organization's ability to logically address and manage all network resources from a central place, according to VARs and network integrators that are starting to build practices around the concept.
Network virtualization consolidates data center resources and centralizes management
"The way network topologies are designed, we have to manage all these things individually right now as discrete physical devices," said Thomas Lee, managing consultant for the mid-Atlantic region with Presidio Networked Solutions, the VAR and managed services company based in Greenbelt, Md. "This is about the idea of taking multiple physical switches and binding them together as one logical or virtual switch."
Whereas server virtualization is a mainstream topic for data center managers, according to Lee and other VARs, the dialogue around network virtualization is still in its infancy and will take three to five years to become a more accepted part of the vernacular.
"We see the uptake to be fairly slow at most customers, partly because this is new territory," said Joe Habib, manager of services and education services for WildPackets Inc., a network and application monitoring company in Walnut Creek, Calif. "We see network and server engineers joining forces and trying to understand what's going on."
10 Gigabit Ethernet paves way for network virtualization
Laying the groundwork for network virtualization is the adoption of 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches, which reached a turning point in mid-2008, according to market research firm Dell'Oro Group. That's when 10G port shipments exceeded 250,000.
Another core building block for network virtualization is the emergence of switches that address the concept in their software layer. These switches build on the notion that features and applications shouldn't be tied to a specific physical piece of hardware and that they can be migrated across the network to improve redundancy and a company's disaster recovery profile.
"CIOs are increasingly realizing that this is another mission-critical application that is too important to be physical," said Scott Miller, president and cofounder of Server Centric Consulting, a virtualization VAR that sells network application traffic offerings from Zeus Technology.
Network virtualization addresses change management, offers gains in performance and allows CIOs to more closely track service levels, Miller said. "The network is as important to me as the database."
The usual vendor suspects are staking a claim in network virtualization. Notably, Juniper Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. are building support for the concept into their latest Catalyst and Nexus lines. Nortel Networks was one of the first to experiment with the concept, although its financial restructuring could challenge the company's adoption of the technology. Another vendor to watch will be Force10 Networks Inc., which provides a management layer called VirtualView.
"I don't think there is a single company, including Cisco, that has got network virtualization down to where they want it to be yet," said Tim LaFazia, CEO of Infrastructure Development Corp., a data center services company in San Diego.For a deeper dive on the tactical opportunities of networking virtualization, see SearchNetworking.com.
This was first published in February 2009