Nutanix and Plexxi – An Affinity to Converge

nutanix-logo

Nutanix has been lighting the hyperconverged world on fire as of late. Strong sales led to a big IPO for their stock. They are in a lot of conversations about using their solution in place of large traditional virtualization offerings that include things like blade servers or big boxes. And even coming off the recent Nutanix .NEXT conference there were some big announcements in the networking arena to help them complete their total solution. However, I think Nutanix is missing a big opportunity that’s right in front of them.

I think it’s time for Nutanix to buy Plexxi.

Software Says

If you look at the Nutanix announcements around networking from .NEXT, they look very familiar to anyone in the server space. The highlights include service chaining, microsegmentation, and monitoring all accessible through an API. If this sounds an awful lot like VMware NSX, Cisco ACI, or any one of a number of new networking companies then you are in the right mode of thinking as far as Nutanix is concerned.

SDN in the server space is all about overlay networking. Segmentation of flows and service chaining are the reason why security is so hard to do in the networking space today. Trying to get traffic to behave in a certain way drives networking professionals nuts. Monitoring all of that to ensure that you’re actually doing what you say you’re doing just adds complexity. And the API is the way to do all of that without having to walk down to the data center to console into a switch and learn a new non-Linux CLI command set.

SDN vendors like VMware and Cisco ACI would naturally have jumped onto these complaints and difficulties in the networking world and both have offered solutions for them with their products. For Nutanix to have bundled solutions like this into their networking offering is no accident. They are looking to battle VMware head-to-head and need to offer the kind of feature parity that it’s going to take a make medium to large shops shift their focus away from the VMware ecosystem and take a long look at what Nutanix is offering.

In a way, Nutanix and VMware are starting to reinforce the idea that the network isn’t a magical realm of protocols and tricks that make applications work. Instead, it’s a simple transport layer between locations. For instance, Amazon doesn’t rely on the magic of the interstate system to get your packages from the distribution center to your home. Instead, the interstate system is just a transport layer for their shipping overlays – UPS, FedEX, and so on. The overlay is where the real magic is happening.

Nutanix doesn’t care what your network looks like. They can do almost everything on top of it with their overlay protocols. That would seem to suggest that the focus going forward should be to marginalize or outright ignore the lower layers of the network in favor of something that Nutanix has visibility into and can offer control and monitoring of. That’s where the Plexxi play comes into focus.

Plexxi Logo

Affinity for Awesome

Plexxi has long been a company in search of a way to sell what they do best. When I first saw them years ago, they were touting their Affinities idea as a way to build fast pathways between endpoints to provide better performance for applications that naturally talked to each other. This was a great idea back then. But it quickly got overshadowed by the other SDN solutions out there. It even caused Plexxi to go down a slightly different path for a while looking at other options to compete in a market that they didn’t really have a perfect fit product.

But the Affinities idea is perfect for hyperconverged solutions. Companies like Nutanix are marking their solutions as the way to create application-focused compute nodes on-site without the need to mess with the cloud. It’s a scalable solution that will eventually lead to having multiple nodes in the future as your needs expand. Hyperconverged was designed to be consumable per compute unit as opposed to massively scaling out in leaps and bounds.

Plexxi Affinities is just the tip of the iceberg. Plexxi’s networking connectivity also gives Nutanix the ability to build out a high-speed interconnect network with one advantage – noninterference. I’m speaking about what happens when a customer needs to add more networking ports to support this architecture. They need to make a call to their Networking Vendor of Choice. In the case of Cisco, HPE, or others, that call will often involve a conversation about what they’re doing with the new network followed by a sales pitch for their hyperconverged solution or a partner solution that benefits both companies. Nutanix has a reputation for being the disruptor in traditional IT. The more they can keep their traditional competitors out of the conversation, the more likely they are to keep the business into the future.


Tom’s Take

Plexxi is very much a company with an interesting solution in need of a friend. They aren’t big enough to really partner with hyperconverged solutions, and most of the hyperconverged market at this point is either cozy with someone else or not looking to make big purchases. Nutanix has the rebel mentality. They move fast and strike quickly to get their deals done. They don’t take prisoners. They look to make a splash and get people talking. The best way to keep that up is to bundle a real non-software networking component alongside a solution that will make the application owners happy and keep the conversation focused on a single source. That’s how Cisco did it back and the day and how VMware has climbed to the top of the virtualization market.

If Nutanix were to spend some of that nice IPO money on a Plexxi Christmas present, I think 2017 would be the year that Nutanix stops being discussed in hushed whispers and becomes a real force to be reckoned with up and down the stack.

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Plexxi and the Case for Affinity

Plexxi Logo

Our last presentation from Day 2 of Network Field Day 5 came from a relatively new company – Plexxi.  I hadn’t really heard much from them before they signed up to present at NFD5.  All I really knew was that they had been attracting some very high profile talent from the Juniper ranks.  First Dan Backman (@jonahsfo) shortly after NFD4 then Mike Bushong (@mbushong) earlier this year.  One might speculate that when the talent is headed in a certain direction, it might be best to see what’s going on over there.  If only I had known the whole story up front.

Mat Mathews kicked off the presentation with a discussion about Plexxi and what they are doing to differentiate themselves in the SDN space.  It didn’t take long before their first surprise was revealed.  Our old buddy Derick Winkworth (@cloudtoad) emerged from his pond to tell us the story of why he moved from Juniper to Plexxi just the week before.  He’d kept the news of his destination pretty quiet.  I should have guessed he would end up at a cutting edge SDN-focused company like Plexxi.  It’s good to see smart people landing in places that not only make them excited but give them the opportunity to affect lots of change in the emerging market of programmable networking.

Marten Terpstra jumped in next to talk about the gory details of what Plexxi is doing.  In a nutshell, this all boils down to affinity.  Based on a study done by Microsoft in 2009, Plexxi noticed that there are a lot of relationships between applications running in a data center.  Once you’ve identified these relationships, you can start doing things with them.  You can create policies that provide for consistent communications between applications.  You can isolate applications from one another.  You can even ensure which applications get preferential treatment during a network argument.  Now do you see the SDN applications?  Plexxi took the approach that there is more data to be gathered by the applications in the network.  When they looked for it, sure enough it was there.  Now, armed with more information, they could start crafting a response.  What they came up with was the Plexxi Switch.  This is a pretty standard 32-port 10GigE switch with 4 QSFP ports..  Their differentiator is the 40GigE uplinks to the other Plexxi Switches.  Those are used to create a physical ring topology that allows the whole conglomeration to work together to create what looked to me like a virtual mesh network.  Once connected in such a manner, the affinities between the applications running at the edges of the network can now begin to be built.

Plexxi has a controller that sits above the bits and bytes and starts constructing the policy-based affinities to allow traffic to go where it needs to go.  It can also set things up so that things don’t go where they’re not supposed to be, as in the example Simon McCormack gives in the above video.  Even if the machine is moved to a different host in the network via vMotion or Live Migration, the Plexxi controller and network are smart enough to figure out that those hosts went somewhere different and that the policy providing for an isolated forwarding path needs to be reimplemented.  That’s one of the nice things about programmatic networking.  The higher-order networking controllers and functions figure out what needs to change in the network and implements the changes either automatically or with a minimum of human effort.  This ensures that the servers don’t come in and muck up the works with things like Dynamic Resource Scheduler (DRS) moves or other unforeseen disasters.  Think about the number of times you’ve seen a VM with an anti-affinity rule that keeps it from being evacuated from a host because there is some sort of dedicated link for compliance or security reasons.  With Plexxi, that can all be done automagically.  Derick even showed off some interesting possibilities around using Python to extend the capabilities of the CLI at the end of the video.

If you’d like to learn more about Plexxi, you can check them out at http://www.plexxi.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @PlexxiInc


Tom’s Take

Plexxi has a much different feel than many of the SDN products I’ve seen so far.  That’s probably because they aren’t trying to extend an existing infrastructure with programmability.  Instead, they’ve taken a singular focus around affinity and managed to tun it into something that looks to have some very fascinating applications in today’s data centers.  If you’re going to succeed in the SDN-centric world of today, you either need to be front of the race as it is being run today, like Cisco and Juniper, or you need to have a novel approach to the problem.  Plexxi really is looking at this whole thing from the top down.  As I mentioned to a few people afterwards, this feels like someone reimplemented QFabric with a significant amount of flow-based intelligence.  That has some implications for higher order handling that can’t be addressed by a simple fabric forwarding engine.  I will stay tuned to Plexxi down the road.  If nothing else, just for the crazy sock pictures.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Plexxi was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, they also gave the delegates a Nerf dart gun and provided us with after hours refreshments.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Additional Coverage of Plexxi and Network Field Day 5

Smart Optical Switching – Your Plexxible Friend – John Herbert

Plexxi Control – Anthony Burke