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The Next vWave

Technology years are like dog years: for every year of advancement in other fields, technology moves ahead seven times faster. By now, the majority of IT industry professionals have become familiar with the practice of server virtualization. The rapid adoption of this technology is due thankfully to the ease with which it is implemented. The paradigm shift brought with it new jargon. Servers became hosts, hosts became VM’s, CPU and RAM became compute capacity, and resources became vCPU and vRAM. Migration took on new meaning altogether, and clustering became a lot simpler. There is a whole lot of “vthis” and “vthat,” and just as you seem to have mastered the learning curve, here comes vSphere 5.5 which was very recently announced by VMware.

The new version of vSphere, while not yet available for public download, is receiving a lot of hype. To be fair, however, the hype is well deserved and while there are many features to get excited about, I want to focus on just one: VMware NSX. According to VMware, this product will revolutionize datacenter operations by doing to networks what server virtualization did for servers and storage. Once you remove the breathless excitement of the marketing speak, this can be viewed as an iterative improvement of network configuration and deployment. Instead of setting up subnets, VLANs and routing at the switch level, you are now able to do all of it at the host level.

Of course you don’t have to be a network engineer to immediately ask the next question: how does NSX manage to do all of this on existing network hardware? The magic sauce is the encapsulation of network traffic that NSX performs on each host, almost like creating a new OSI layer, which can be deciphered by other hosts on the network as well as a new breed of NSX-aware switches. When virtualizing physical servers, there was a slight performance penalty that had to be paid due to the extra abstraction layer – the same will be true for virtualizing the network.

The hardware changes in servers and networking equipment that are making this new trend possible is the shift to 10 Gbit+ networking. New servers from HP and Dell come with optional embedded 10 Gbit NICs, and 10 Gbit networking switches have entered the sub-$1000 arena. This is key for hosts supporting dozens of VM’s as the embedded 1 Gbit NIC controllers on current servers have become bottlenecks.

The bright future that VMware paints for us with NSX is a step up from the single-click VM deployment. We are now able to deploy multiple VM’s on a particular subnet across multiple hosts with the click of a button. No network configuration changes, no DHCP server overlap, and no IP conflicts. All the hype may not be hype after all.

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