Apstra Raises IBN Stakes With VXLAN Integration


By: R. Scott Raynovich

Apstra, the Menlo Park-based, self-funded super startup, took another step in differentiating itself from the networking pack by announcing the second version of its cloud networking operating system, AOS 2.0, which takes the important step of adding support for VXLAN, a widely used protocol for managing networks in cloud operations.

Apstra says AOS 2.0 will support VXLAN as well as integrate control of networking equipment with Layer 3 underlay as well as the Layer 2 overlay. In plain English, that means that Apstra can talk to equipment at both the Ethernet level as well as the IP routing chip level, which is required to support proprietary routing equipment, such as Cisco's. VXLAN is often used as a "overlay" protocol to network cloud environments.

It's a big move for the small company, which only has about 50 employees but is promising to change the world of how networks are managed in enterprises and cloud operations. It also delivers an important marker of differentiation in the open networking movement, where many companies have opted to take either the open overlay route, or the proprietary underlay route, to building networking ecosystems. Apstra says it does both.

Apstra's Dream Team

Apstra is closely watched because it's backed by a dream-team of networking engineers that have had substantial influence on the industry.

Apstra founders include CEO Mansour Karam, a veteran of Arista (ANET) and Big Switch; CTO Sasha Ratkovic, a veteran of Juniper; and chief scientist David Cheriton, a former founder and investor in Arista as well as one of the first investors in Google (GOOG) and VMWare (VMW). Apstra is also unique in that it did not seek traditional venture-capital financing and was funded by a small group of private investors, including its founders.

Apstra executives have already caused waves in the industry by referring to the AOS product as Intent-Based Networking (IBN), which looks at the system as a whole, rather than piece by piece, to deliver optimal operating conditions to support applications. To deliver the IBN approach, AOS monitors and analyzes data from as many hardware and software pieces as possible, using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). One of the analogies that Apstra has used is the way navigational systems such as Waze collect telemetry data to guide you through the perfect path in the streets. Using network telemetry, Apstra calculates what's happening on the network and compares that to a programmed optimal state, so that it can make adjustments in real time.

The goal for IBN is to automate manual troubleshooting and configuration tasks, which can make up large parts of an organization's operating expense (Opex) for the network. Adding VXLAN support is crucial because it has become a key standard for cloud networking systems using a complex combination of routing and switching hardware using both Layer 3 (IP routing) and Layer 2 (Ethernet switching) protocols. Apstra says it can manage an integrated Layer 3 underlay with a Layer 2 overlay, meaning that using APIs it can control the configuration of open switching gear as well as proprietary routing hardware manufactured by vendors such as Cisco.

'RIP SDN' – It's Now IBN

Last week Futuriom met with Karam, CEO and founder of Apstra, as well as attended the NetEvents analyst and press summit in San Jose, where Karam detailed Apstra's plans and vision for IBN. Karam sees the IBN movement as an evolution of SDN, which he believes is "dead." The industry sees a trend in IBN emerging, as other vendors embrace the concept.

"RIP SDN," said Karam. "The promise of SDN that didn't happen," he said last week. Karam says the main thrust of AOS 2.0 is that it can serve as a central management system for cloud networking environments, aggregating many sources of data including networking configuring information through APIs, and then be programmed to deliver the network an optimal state for applications. The VXLAN support means that it can drive the network both as a networking overlay or talk directly to switching hardware in what is referred to in the industry as underlay.

"We can automate the entire lifecycle in and across the [server and switching] racks. Fully automated and Layer 2 underlay and Layer 3 overlay. We are the first to handle both overlay and underlay whether the equipment is vendor agnostic or not."

A key challenge for Apstra will be the ability to get the necessary integration with all of the equipment, protocols, and network virtualization platforms in a cloud system in order to work. Critics of the approach have pointed out that it will be targeted at "greenfield" operations, or networks that are being built from the ground up, to ensure aggregation of all of the necessary telemetry.

What's Next for IBN?

Karam says the timing for IBN is right because APIs are more open than they were four or five years ago. He says this dynamic was created when Arista responded to customer requests to have more open equipment, while Cisco was slower to respond (Karam used to work at Arista). Now that the major vendors have opened up their APIs, it's possible to gain telemetry and configuration data from all the devices to run an IBN system such as Apstra's, Karam says.

Apstra's approach is ambitious and has already caused other vendors to make public statements about IBN, including Cisco, which doesn't have a specific IBN product yet but has started pushing IBN in marketing literature. On the marketing level, it's clear that IBN is working, even though Apstra has yet to name a public customer. The company does state that it has "global revenue," from a variety of customers around the world. It's been shipping a product for a year.

One thing is clear: Apstra's moves in IBN will ratchet up pressure on Arista and Cisco to come up with a higher-level networking automation story, as the intent-based movement gathers momentum. It will be interesting to see what those billion-dollar revenue companies do next.