eBay fires up OpenStack cloud with Nicira network virt

Sitting next to a nervous VMware vCloud

If VMware needed another reason to justify its $1.26bn acquisition of network virtualization upstart Nicira, it need look no further than online auctioneer eBay.

Nicira created Open vSwitch, a virtual switch that plugs into server virtualization hypervisors and provides a networking abstraction layer that's akin to a hypervisor for CPU, memory, and I/O in a server.

The stealthy company has also created the Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) controller, an out-of-band virtual network control freak that implements OpenFlow protocols, separating the access control lists inside a switch or router from the physical device and aggregating them on the controller.

NVP makes traffic routing and shaping programmable from the controller, since the flow tables are all back there and not spread across the switches. Its network virtualization also allows for coordination with virtual switches as traffic and system loads change in the data center – for example, when virtual machines are live-migrating across the server clusters.

Nicira is also a big backer of OpenStack, and is driving the development of the "Quantum" network abstraction layer in the OpenStack cloud controller pioneered by NASA and Rackspace Hosting two years ago. Quantum is expected to go leave beta and enter production with the "Folsom" release of the OpenStack code at the end of September.

So you can imagine how antsy VMware must have been when it watched Nicira come into eBay eight months ago as JC Martin, cloud architect at the auctioneer, set about to create an OpenStack cloud with Nicira network virtualization.

While eBay is pretty secretive about its IT infrastructure, Alan Cohen, VP of marketing at Nicira, tells El Reg that the company has a big cloud built using VMware's ESXi hypervisor, its vCenter management console, and its vCloud Director cloud controller.

You can bet that VMware wants that to continue to be the case if at all possible. At the same time, if it owns Nicira, and if OpenStack takes off inside of companies like eBay, then it can at least make some money on the network virtualization bolted onto the cloud controllers of such rivals as Citrix Systems, Microsoft, and others.

At the moment, the OpenStack cloud set up at eBay is fairly modest, with a few hundred nodes and running a few thousand virtual machines atop of the KVM hypervisor on x86-based server iron. It's used to stand up and knock down virtual computing, storage, and networking for 255 software development projects that eBay is doing now.

It was setup by two eBay employees who are familiar with OpenStack, and they are using the full Nicira software stack, including beta code of Quantum as well as Open vSwitch and the NVP controller. eBay has hacked on its own management interface so system admins can work with OpenStack and VMware clouds from a single pane of glass.

This R&D cloud running OpenStack is a precursor to how eBay may roll out Nicira's network virty tools across all of its workloads at some time in the future. "The goal for us at eBay is to expand," says Cohen.

The fact that the Nicira network virtualization tools are agnostic when it comes to hypervisors, switches, and routers means they can be used on VMware clouds as well as OpenStack clouds.

"We are already in VMware clouds today," says Cohen, though exactly how customers are integrating with the VMware stack and how that will change in the future is not something Nicira is willing to talk a lot about at this point. El Reg went through some of the integration possibilities last month when the Nicira deal was announced.

"Rapid innovation lies at the heart of eBay's business," Martin said in a statement. "Working with Nicira, we have removed the last big barrier, the network, from creating computing resources on demand. We can now provide these resources in a minute versus hours or days. Not only do our best minds create new products and services more quickly, but we can also be more efficient and greener with our computing resources."

eBay has a mix of physical and virtual servers running its infrastructure, and it has long since figured out that virtualization allows it to spin up a virtual machine with running systems and application software in a snap. The bottleneck has now shifted to the network.

According to Cohen, it took as much as seven weeks to get the infrastructure for a new software development project up before the networks in the eBay dev cloud were virtualized. "Virtually all of that delay was in the network," says Cohen. "We took it down to one minute."

eBay is also looking to save some money. Martin told InfoWorld that eBay had been looking mostly at "vendor-provided solutions" for its cloudy infrastructure and that it was looking for more open source solutions.

But don't get too excited about free virtual networking. While Open vSwitch and Quantum are free, the integral NVP controller certainly is not free or open source and very likely is not going to be, either. Nicira, like VMware, is perfectly happy to have some things open source to promote community development and adoption and to leave other things closed source to make some money selling licenses and support. ®

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