PhD student takes networking to the next level
Culture and mentality standing in the way of network virtualisation
WHEN VMware Inc bought a relatively unknown startup called Nicira Inc in July 2012 for a whopping US$1.26 billion, the industry was abuzz, with many analysts and pundits questioning if such a buy was worth it.
Nicira had been under the radar for about five years as it did its research, surfacing in February 2012 with only one commercially available product portfolio: The Nicira Network Virtualisation Platform.
Back then – before the days of Facebook buying WhatsApp for a massive US$19 billion – paying top dollar for such a company was considered pretty risky.
Until VMware’s acquisition of Nicira, little was known about the company save for the fact that it counted amongst its clients multinationals such as AT&T, Rackspace, and Fidelity Investments. Online auction powerhouse eBay and Japanese telco giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) even had glowing references for Nicira.
The New York Times reported on Oct 17, 2011 that by using Nicira’s software, NTT said it was able “to move the actions of thousands of computers from one building to another without missing a beat.”
The article noted that the move was now only possible with a lot of adjustment between the two sides of the transaction. Using Nicira, it said, a company could do it without any planning or configuration.
Tech news portal InformationWeek also referred to a Nicira press release quoting eBay network architect J.C. Martin as saying that with Nicira virtualised networking, eBay had been able to reduce the amount of time it takes to launch a new application “from days to minutes,” due primarily to the reduced testing needed with its network resources.
The gamble VMware made wasn’t exactly without merit. Prior to the acquisition, Nicira had at that point received about US$40 million in funding from big name venture capitalists such as Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Ventures and New Enterprise Associates, as well as Diane Greene, a VMware cofounder.
About a year after the NYT article, VMware swooped in and paid premium for a company of about a hundred people, 70 of whom were computer scientists and engineers.
Wired called the takeover a defensive move by VMware as it was more about talent acquisition then it it was about technology gains.
Meanwhile, investor Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz justified the purchase price, noting that “there's only one option you can buy that makes you the leader in data networking for the next 20 years – and that company is Nicira.”
Since then, others too have argued that the deal was done for the potential of Nicira's technology rather than strictly for return-on-investment per se.
PhD pays off
Not bad for a company that was born out of a PhD research project undertaken by a talented and affable Stanford student named Martin Casado (pic above).
The 38-year-old computer scientist has been credited as being one of the architects of network virtualisation due to his research into OpenFlow, an open standard-based networking communications protocol that he helped draft as part of his PhD dissertation at Stanford University.
The work on OpenFlow led Casado to form Nicira – a tech startup specialising in network virtualisation and software-defined networking (SDN) – in 2007, together with his academic advisors Professors Nick McKeown of Stanford and Scott Shenker of the University of California, Berkeley.
“I think I’m one of the few tech company cofounders who actually finished a PhD,” quips Casado, referring to his fellow alumni Larry Page and Sergei Brin who dropped out of their PhD degrees to form Google Inc in 1998.
Speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA), Casado says, “Everyone likes a good story – that Martin was doing his PhD and came up with a brilliant innovation that change the networking industry. But the reality is, I started Nicira with a great team of people and we got acquired by a great company [VMware].
“I was there from the beginning and influenced a lot of the initial work and I’ll admit that it has been great to see the [networking] world change compared with seven years ago. But I want to be clear: It has been an enormous team effort.”
Casado’s work on network virtualisation and SDN is by far the most exciting the networking industry has experienced in a long while, as testified by the fact that it was voted as one of 50 most disruptive companies by MIT Technology Review.
“By using virtual computer networks rather than hardwired systems to connect cloud servers, it could make the cloud more secure and reliable,” the Review said in its annual list of movers and shakers in the tech industry.
“Nicira’s software takes over the functions of network hardware, resulting in a distributed system of components that can swiftly respond to changes in workload,” it added.
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