10 network virtualization, SDN, and data center companies to watch

Former execs from Cisco, Sun, Oracle, and Symantec try their hands at data center startups

After years of venture capital and startup focus on consumer-focused tech companies, enterprise networks and the data center are back in vogue.

But we're not talking sexy Vogue. We're talking virtualization, cloud computing and software-defined networking (SDN) -- the sorts of technologies IT managers need to run more efficient data centers and better support increasingly mobile workforces and customers.

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"It's an area that hasn't had any innovation in decades," says Jamie Goldstein of North Bridge Venture Partners about the networking industry. "Vendors are still selling the same Ethernet switches they were in the 1990s. Maybe the interfaces are faster, but it's all basically the same technology. Until recently." SDN is a fundamental change in networking, he says, which is causing excitement in the venture capital community.

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Established vendors such as Cisco, Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent have all aired their SDN plans of late, but it's venture-backed companies such as VMware's $1.2 billion baby Nicira and Stanford University-borne Big Switch Networks that have grabbed more of the attention in this emerging field. And scads of newcomers are right behind them.

In our latest package on companies to watch -- vendors that collectively have raised some $250 million in funding -- we profile SDN upstarts as well as those in related markets such as virtualization and converged infrastructure.

1. HotLink
Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif.
Founded: 2010
Focus: Virtualization management
Product availability: HotLink SuperVISOR for VMware vCenter and HotLink Hybrid Express for VMware vCenter are both generally available.
Funding: $10M from Foundation Capital and Leapfrog Ventures
Management: HotLink CEO Lynn LeBlanc and Chief Science Officer Richard Offer co-founded FastScale Technology, a software provisioning platform that VMware acquired. LeBlanc has worked at a variety of eventually-acquired startups, including iReady, ILEX Systems and Atherton Technology
More information: HotLink 

An emerging truth about modern data centers is that they are heterogeneous. They run multiple operating systems, applications and, increasingly, hypervisors. (One survey found that up to 20 percent of VMware users have deployed the Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor in their data centers, with Red Hat's KVM and Citrix's Xen Server each gaining market share against VMware's dominate hypervisor market position.)

But the downside to all this: "Heterogeneity is typically synonymous with complexity," says HotLink CEO LeBlanc.

The vendor's SuperVisor product is designed to simplify management of heterogeneous hypervisors via a software plugin to VMware vCenter. HotLink's recently launched Hybrid Express platform allows vCenter users to control Amazon Web Service's public cloud resources.

In effect, Hotlink's software tricks VMware vCenter into thinking that Hyper-V, KVM or Xen-virtualized machines are running on VMware hypervisors. A variety of management platforms allow users to deploy virtual machines across hypervisors, but HotLink goes beyond just that and allows users to migrate workloads across them, too. "No one else is really doing integration to this degree," says Bernd Harzog, an analyst at The Virtualization Practice.

HotLink gives IT administrators the power to set access controls, track benchmarking and use, make changes to, configure and manage the instances across clouds.

The company has an impressive list of backers. Its advisory board includes CIOs from some of Silicon Valley's biggest names, including from Facebook, Citrix and EA. Partners include VMware, Red Hat, Microsoft and Citrix, makers of the four major hypervisor platforms.

Flush with venture funding and actual customer-generated revenue, and fresh off winning a best in show award at VMworld 2012, HotLink is now looking to broaden its products' integration with additional management platforms and to increase their functionality.

2. Lyatiss
Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif., with offices in Lyon, France
Founded: 2010
Focus: Application-defined networking for the cloud
Product availability: Public beta of CloudWeaver launched in January; general availability expected in early 2013.
Funding: $3.3M in series A from Idinvest Partners, a pan-European mid-market private equity firmManagement: Pascale Vicat-Blanc, founder and CEO, is former research director at INRIA (French National Institute for Research in Computer Science) and former CIO of a Grid 5000 Data Center, as well as project manager at CERN.
More information: Lyatiss 

Lyatiss is taking a slightly different approach to software-defined networking and instead is focused on application-defined networking.

"Cloud networks are unpredictable and complex; traditional networks are blind to the applications running on them and rigid," says CEO Vicat-Blanc. "There's a missing link there."

Lyatiss's recently launched CloudWeaver product is an operating system that runs on Amazon Web Services' cloud that makes networks application-aware. It has a series of collectors that monitor application demands in real-time through an API, collects the correlating network requirements and provisions the network to those specifications. If one application needs a low-latency connection for speed, the network will automatically be configured for that. If another app needs high bandwidth for a certain type of traffic, the network can be optimized for that, too.

Lyatiss was born out of the publicly funded French technology research institute INRIA where Vicat-Blanc studied high-demanding applications. Researchers monitored the virtual networking developments in U.S. academia, as well as the market adoption of cloud computing, and saw an opportunity to link the two with network controllers.

"There are a lot of business opportunities in this market," Vicat-Blanc says. "Networking and the cloud used to be separated, but now there's a convergence and there's a lot to be done to make them work together." Users will not embrace SDN technology if it isn't practical for them to use, and making it practical is about ensuring that the network can respond to the needs of the applications running on it, she says.

3. Midokura
Headquarters: San Francisco
Founded: 2009
Focus: Network virtualization for cloud service providers
Product availability: MidoNet software is in beta now, general availability in Q1
Funding: $5.5M in seed funding from angel investors Bit-Isle, and institutional investors NTT Investment Partners, MUFJ Capital and 1st Holdings.
Management: Tatsuya Kato, co-Founder and CEO, was CEO of mobile Internet company Cybird and a former executive at Japanese systems integrator CSK Holdings; Chief Strategy Officer Ben Cherian was GM of emerging technologies at DreamHost; Dan Dumitriu, co-founder and CTO, was an Amazon Web Services architect.
More information: Midokura 

The founders of Midokura started the company with one bold goal: To create a public cloud service in Japan that would rival Amazon Web Services. But if anyone could do it, it may be these guys. Members of the team worked with Amazon CTO Werner Vogels to help create Amazon Web Services' distributed Dynamo database system.

But when the Midokura team began planning for the massive data center infrastructure that would be needed, they ran into a big problem. Networking, they found, was not ready for the cloud. To get to their goal, they needed to solve the networking problem first, which is why they created MidoNet software. When testing the technology they believed it could be as big of a business opportunity as creating an AWS in Japan, and have been focused solely on their networking operating platform since.

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MidoNet software centrally controls all aspects of an IaaS cloud network, from the switches to the routers to x86 servers to firewalls to any other piece of commodity hardware. It centrally analyzes traffic at the very edge, as soon as it enters the network. Each aspect of a Midokura network is linked, which the company says allows the software to route traffic directly from the entry point to the destination in the most efficient way possible. In doing so, it's "blowing up the router," says Midokura's Cherian.

"Since you're abstracting away the devices from the network controls and pushing the intelligence of the network to the farthest edges, the physical infrastructure is still there, but you're not requiring as much from it," Cherian explains. Switches and routers, he says, simply aren't designed to handle the massive amount of changes that occur within a cloud network. MidoNet is designed for the dynamically scaling network requirements of a cloud. Initial deployments of the system work with OpenStack-powered clouds.

4. Nutanix
Headquarters: San Jose
Founded: 2009
Focus: SAN-less storage and compute clusters
Product availability: Generally available
Funding: $71.6M from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Blumberg Capital, Khosla Ventures, Battery Ventures and Goldman Sachs
Management: Founder and CEO Dheeraj Pandey, former vice president of engineering at Aster Data (now Teradata), managed the storage engine group for Oracle Database/Exadata; vice president of operations David Sangste, formerly with EMC, Data Domain, Hewlett Packard; vice president of engineering Bill Culman, formerly of QuorumLabs, Interwoven, BEA Systems and Tandem Computers.
More information: Nutanix 

Efforts by big name vendors such as Cisco, VMware and EMC (via their VCE venture) to combine data center elements such as compute, storage and networking into one plug-and-play system have been mildly successful to date, according to industry analyst Arun Taneja. What Nutanix is doing is different though, what Taneja calls "hyper-convergence."

Nutanix sells a hardware-software combination that combines compute and storage, meant to allow for easy scalability to a massive size with simple management. In 2011 the company won a best in show at VMworld in the virtual desktop category and investors have already poured more than $70 million into the company. Nutanix says in 30 minutes its system can be installed and IT admins have a data center in a box, ready to scale just by adding more nodes.

The key, says CEO Pandey, is the notion that data stored in Nutanix is written locally and stored redundantly across however many nodes are included in the deployment. That allows for easy horizontal scaling - just add more boxes to increase capacity, while not degrading performance. Nutanix is built on Intel Sandy Bridge processors and the VMware ESX hypervisor, but its Version 3.0 software released in December expands support to Red Hat's Kernel Virtual Machine (KVM). Automatic redundancy across the system means virtual machine-level disaster recovery capabilities, while the VMware platform allows for vMotion - the transferring of virtual machine instances -- across nodes within the system.

Nutanix is playing in a crowded field with some heavy hitters. Along with VCE, IBM has Pure Systems and NetApp has FlexPod. Taneja, the analyst, says those are "pseudo" convergence efforts -- disparate pieces assembled together and optimized to work collectively. "Hyper-convergence can only happen if you start afresh," he says, which is exactly what Nutanix has done.

5. Pica8
Headquarters: Palo Alto, Calif.
Founded: 2009
Focus: Hardware-independent SDN switching systems
Product availability: OpenFlow-enabled Open Switches are shipping now
Funding: $6.5M Series A from Vantage Point Capital in October 2012
Management: Co-founders James Liao (CEO) and Lin Du (vice president of engineering) were with Woven Systems; other execs from InfloBlox, Dell and Alcatel-Lucent.
More information: Pica8 

Even though the SDN market is young, there is already a confusing variety of vendors and products on the market. Where's an interested buyer supposed to start?

Pica8 executives want to simplify the process. The company, which was founded on the basis of being software-focused and hardware-independent, has released a series of reference architectures of how to get going along the SDN pathway -- of course using Pica8's network operating system.

An SDN architecture has three main components, explains Pica8 marketing executive Steve Garrison: A physical switch, a controller and a virtual switch. But there are already dozens of options for customers to select from for each of those components, leading to a long onboarding process of typically between 90 to 100 days, he says. Pica8's published guides show how customers can set up and deploy these virtual networks using Pica8 components and commodity hardware supplied by Quanta Computer, ensuring that customers are not locked into buying expensive proprietary equipment.

Pica8's software, which includes the Open vSwitch (OVS) agent from Nicira, also works with open source controllers from Big Switch Networks, although a variety of other OpenFlow-based controllers, such as Ryu, can be used as well. The idea, Garrison says, is that as SDN adoption continues, "no one controller will be best for every application... no one company will own this market."

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