Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cisco's Nexus 1000v and the Cloud: Is it really a big deal?

Yesterday, the big announcements at VMWorld 2008 were about Cloud OSes. Today, the big news seemed to be Maritz's keynote (where he apparently laid out an amazing vision of what VMWare thinks they can achieve in the coming year), and the long rumored Cisco virtual switch.

The latter looks to be better than I had hoped for functionally, though perhaps a little more locked in to VMWare than I'd like. There is an explanation for the latter, however, so it may not be so bad...see below.

I've already explained why I love the Nexus concept so much. Today, Cisco and VMWare jointly announced the Nexus 1000v virtual machine access switch, a fully VI compatible software switch that...well, I'll let Cisco's data sheet explain it:
"The Cisco Nexus™ 1000V virtual machine access switch is an intelligent software switch implementation for VMware ESX environments. Running inside of the VMware ESX hypervisor, the Cisco Nexus 1000V supports Cisco® VN-Link server virtualization technology, providing
  • Policy-based virtual machine (VM) connectivity
  • Mobile VM security and network policy, and
  • Non-disruptive operational model for your server virtualization, and networking teams.
When server virtualization is deployed in the data center, virtual servers typically are not managed the same way as physical servers. Server virtualization is treated as a special deployment, leading to longer deployment time with a greater degree of coordination among server, network, storage, and security administrators. But with the Cisco Nexus 1000V you can have a consistent networking feature set and provisioning process all the way from the VM to the access, aggregation, and core switches. Your virtual servers can use the same network configuration, security policy, tools, and operational models as physical servers. Virtualization administrators can leverage predefined network policy that follows the nomadic VM and focus on virtual machine administration. This comprehensive set of capabilities helps you to deploy server virtualization faster and realize its benefits sooner."
In other words, the 1000v is a completely equal player in a Cisco fabric, and can completely leverage all of the skill sets and policy management available in its other switches. Think "my sys admins can do what they do best, and my network admins can do what they do best". Further more, it supports VN-Link, which allows VMWare systems running on Cisco fabric to VMotion without losing any network or security configuration. Read that last sentence again.

(I wrote some time about about network administrators facing the most change by this whole pooled-resource thing--this feature seals the deal. Those static network maps they used to hang on your wall, showing them exactly what system was connected to what switch port with what IP address are now almost entirely obsolete.)

I love that feature. I will love it even more if it functions in its entirety in the vCloud concept that VMWare is pitching, and all indications are that it will. So, to tell the story here as simply as possible:
  • You create a group of VMs for a distributed application in VConsole
  • You assign network security and policy via Cisco tools, using the same interface as on the physical switches
  • You configure VMWare to allow VMs for the application to get capacity from an external vendor--one of dozens supporting vCloud
  • When an unexpected peak hits, your VM cluster grabs additional capacity as required in the external cloud, without losing network policy and security configurations.
Cloud computing nirvana.

Now, there are some disappointments, as I hinted above. First, the switch is not stackable, as originally hoped, though the interconnectivity of VN-Link probably overrides that. (Is VN-Link just another way to "stack" switches? Networking is not my strong point.)

Update: In the comments below, Omar Sultan of Cisco notes that the switches are, in fact, "virtually stackable", meaning they can be distributed across multiple physical systems, creating a single network domain for a cluster of machines. I understand that just enough to be dangerous, so I'll stop there."

More importantly, I was initially kind of ticked off that Cisco partnered so closely with VMWare without being careful to note that they would be releasing similar technologies with Citrix and Red Hat at a minimum. But, as I thought about it, Citrix hitched its wagon to 3TERA, and 3TERA owns every aspect of the logical infrastructure an application runs on. In AppLogic, you have to use their network representation, load balancers, and so on as a part of your application infrastructure definition, and 3TERA maps those to real resources as it sees fit. For network connections, it relies on a "Logical Connection Manager (LCM)":
"The logical connection manager implements a key service that abstracts intercomponent communications. It enables AppLogic to define all interactions between components of an application in terms of point-to-point logical connections between virtual appliances. The interactions are controlled and tunneled across physical networks, allowing AppLogic to enforce interaction protocols, detect security breaches and migrate live TCP connections from one IP network to another transparently."

(from the AppLogic Grid Operating System Technical Overview: System Services)
Thus, there is no concept of a virtual switch, per se, in AppLogic. A quick look at their site shows no other partners in the virtual networking or load balancing space (though Nirvanix is a virtual storage partner), so perhaps Cisco simply hasn't been given the opportunity or the hooks to participate in the Xen/3TERA Cloud OS.

(If anyone at 3TERA would like to clarify, I would be extremely grateful. If Cisco should be partnering here, I would be happy to add some pressure to them to do so.)

As for Red Hat, I honestly don't know anything about their VMM, so I can't guess at why Cisco didn't do anything there...although my gut tells me that I won't be waiting long to hear about a partnership between those two.

This switch makes VMWare VMs equal players in the data center network, and that alone is going to disrupt a lot of traditional IT practices. While I was at Cassatt, I remember a colleague predicting that absolutely everything would run in a VM by the end of this decade. That still seems a little aggressive to me, but a lot less so than it did yesterday.