VMware Tweaks NSX Virtual Networks For Containers, Microservices

VMware jumped into burgeoning software-defined networking (SDN) field in a big way four years ago when it bought started Nicira for $1.26 billion, a deal that led to the launch of VMware’s NSX offering a year later. NSX put the company on a crash course with other networking vendors, particularly Cisco Systems, all of whom were trying to plot their strategies to deal with the rapid changes in what had been a relatively staid part of the industry.

Many of these vendors had made their billions over the years selling expensive appliance-style boxes filled with proprietary technologies, and now faced a future where many of the tasks that had been housed in those switches were now software that could run in less-expensive industry-standard systems. VMware came in without the burden of having a legacy hardware business.

The company initially optimized NSX for its vSphere suite of server virtualization products. However, year ago VMware launched NSX-T, a version of the product that not only can support other hypervisors, such as the open source KVM, but also addresses the rise of such emerging datacenter technologies as containers and cloud-native applications as well as the growing use of public clouds. The company has tracked a move in application architectures away from the traditional three-tier model that includes high use of virtual machines (VMs) to ones that includes microservices, containers, and cloud-native app platforms, Matt De Vincentis, group product marketing manager, tells The Next Platform.

“That’s really beginning to change to these emerging architectures, to these cloud-native application platforms leveraging microservices and deployed in containers rather than VMs,” De Vincentis says. “There’s also these cloud-native platforms, like Kubernetes, Cloud Foundry, and Mesos. Organizations are really starting to adopt these enterprise-production at scale. I think back a couple of years ago and a lot of these cloud-native type of platforms and containers were sort of like a science project, but what we’re starting to see with this is enterprises adopting this for production applications at scale.”

VMware has looked to leverage its technologies, partnerships and working relationships with other companies within the Dell Technologies sphere to grow the capabilities within NSX to address these emerging technologies and expand it farther beyond the datacenter and into the cloud. That has included the NSX Cloud, a service to bring networking and security to applications running in multiple private and public clouds through a single management console and a common API. The vendor also worked with Pivotal Software – another Dell company – and Google to create the Pivotal Container Service (PKS), which integrates the open container orchestration technology Kubernetes with VMware’s software-defined datacenter infrastructure technologies to make Kubernetes more broadly available to customers.

In August, VMware announced a partnership with IT services company DXC Technology to launch DXC Managed Cloud Services based on VMware’s hybrid cloud services platforms in the Amazon Web Services public cloud. Among the benefits to customers is workload portability between VMware-based datacenters, DXC datacenters, and VMware Cloud in AWS. In a conference call in late November, VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger said the company in the third quarter had seen a 100 percent jump in NSX license bookings year-over-year, helped in part by the DXC partnership. The company now has 3,100 NSX customers.

The trend toward cloud-native apps is not new, but enterprise interest in the technologies is growing, De Vincentis says.

“It’s been going on for a couple of years now, but from the start of this year we started to see a trend toward organizations not just dipping that toe in the water and testing out this stuff, but actually starting to think seriously about adopting it for customer, production, application at scale,” he says. “And at scale is another important point. The traditional networking and the basic networking stack that comes with this platform are probably ok when you’re thinking of [someone] just sitting in a cubicle plugging away at their laptop. But when it comes around to enterprises actually deploying those applications at scale, that’s when networking and security has to be automated. Earlier this year we started to see a shift we were having in conversations.”

Those technologies are changing how networking needs to be done. It already has been going the software-defined route, but technologies like containers and microservices are continuing to demand changes.

“When we’re talking about a cloud-native world and containers and microservices being very rapidly deployed, very rapidly iterated, clearly networking needs to be done in software,” explains De Vincentis. “The legacy of a hardware-defined network – where your deploying physical boxes and manually configuring them – that’s not going to keep up with the rapid pace of development. Not only that, but the lifecycle of these containers is so short – typically the lifecycle of a container is measured in minutes if not seconds – vs. months or years that we used to measure the lifecycle of our physical or virtual servers, so network configurations and policies and these sorts of things clearly have to be automated for the network to support that container. Manual configuration of the network is just not an option.”

VMware is pushing new capabilities into NSX-T in hopes of address many of these issues. In August, VMware introduced direct integration with Kubernetes and Red Hat’s OpenShift container application platform, as well as the ability to take advantage of the Container Networking Interface (CNI), a plug-in-based solution for containers. It also contained more networking services, including micro-segmentation and load balancing. At the Pivotal SpringOne show this week, VMware is introducing a networking stack underpinning PKS and direct integration with Pivotal Cloud Foundry 2.0 cloud-native platform.

A key goal is enabling communication between containers and VMs. The network in most cloud-native platforms only span the container platform itself, which enables containers to talk with each other, but not with other services in the network or other parts of the application that may not be in containers, which creates another level of networking. With NSX-T, containers can communicate with other parts of the network, including VMs, by creating a single network overlay for both, De Vincentis says.

In addition, through the integrations with such platforms as OpenShift and Pivotal Cloud Foundry, developers don’t a see a change in their workflows or the tools they use but can take advantages of the technologies within the platform. As the same time, a common management interface means IT gains greater visibility and control of traditional and microservices-based applications, he says.

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