There have been moves to virtualize every aspect of the computer system. One component has remained troublesome and resistant to this kind of manipulation: the network. While we have made tremendous strides in abstracting server computing power and storage, we have been unable to adequately do the same for network hardware. There are many reasons for this, some of which include requirements for high-performance and low latency. Hardware-based appliances excel at performance, but they’re expensive and suffer from all the limitations of physical hardware components, namely a lack of mobility and an inability to scale beyond their capacity.
The same functions can also be performed by software. It is easier to manage and can be set up and deployed in minutes. However, the solutions tend to be expensive and also require complex licensing. This puts them out of the reach of small startup companies that cannot afford to build up the proper infrastructure necessary for providing the next generation of cloud services. What we need is a complete network virtualization solution that allows IT administrators to dynamically provision network capacity when needed.
It’s not as if the basic idea of network virtualization is new. We have had Virtual LANs (VLANs) for decades now. Indeed, many organizations already use some form of network virtualization in order to prioritize traffic, such as VoIP, that requires a dedicated channel of its own. Nearly all corporations deploy some form of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) as the situation demands. The VPN is nothing but a software layer running over the physical network that provides the appearance of a dedicated network in and of itself. Both VLANs and VPNs are examples of network virtualization at the protocol level.
A company known as Embrane is offering network virtualization that goes beyond the basic concepts that we already know about. What we’re talking about is the dynamic provisioning of networking resources at any point of time, depending on the requirements of the situation. Say for example an enterprise has three different network services: a VPN, a load balancer, and a firewall. Without network virtualization, each of these will have to be set up separately and provisioned accordingly. Their capacities would be fixed without any facility to dynamically increase it when the demand is high. With network virtualization, all the powerful resources of the cloud can be made available to them when necessary. So if the VPN suddenly experiences a surge in usage, the underlying hardware can automatically take up the slack.
This allows a variety of businesses and services to be up and running and they only pay for what they use rather than have to decide beforehand what kind of bandwidth and resources they need to offer. This “no capital expenditure” and “no commitment” network model is precisely what the cloud excels at. Network virtualization is still probably the weakest link in the chain of cloud services, but companies like Embrane are making it more accessible to everyone.