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System management suppliers want to deliver a full stack of management tools to serve the network up through the application. VMware took a step in that direction when it purchased Avi Networks in June 2019. The acquisition moved VMware into the emerging software-defined ADC space, but more importantly, it provided VMware with an essential tool to help it transform vSphere into a software-defined Layer 1 to Layer 7 management stack.
Launched in 2012, Avi Networks created an application delivery controller (ADC) management platform that includes load balancing, web application firewall, analytics and service mesh capabilities.
"Avi was one of the companies leading the move away from hardware to software-based load balancers," said Brad Casemore, research vice president of data center networks at IDC, a Framingham, Mass., market research firm.
Legacy ADC suppliers, including F5 Networks and Citrix, have sold appliances packaged as turnkey hardware-software bundles. As the industry moves away from those devices and toward strictly software, which typically offers customers more flexibility, agility and lower costs, VMware's Avi acquisition might provide what it needs to become a major player.
What Avi Networks brings to VMware
Avi Networks has previously worked with companies such as Nginx to build its products. Avi's software features a modern design and can automate traditional manual provisioning from a central user interface.
Avi works with a variety of systems, including AWS, Microsoft Azure, OpenStack, Red Hat OpenShift and VMware's vCenter and NSX.
VMware's Avi acquisition gave it a foothold in the ADC market, alongside vendors such as A10 Networks, Citrix and F5 Networks. Currently, the bulk of ADC management sales remain traditional turnkey bundles, but the market is shifting toward software. In March 2019, F5 -- which IDC said was the top ADC supplier with 29.2% of the market at that time -- paid $670 million for Nginx.
VMware also gained an edge over its frequent rival Cisco, which remains noticeably absent from the ADC market.
"Cisco tried a few times to get into the ADC market, did not have much success, and now relies on partnerships with vendors like F5 and Citrix to address customer needs," Casemore said.
In addition to gaining a foothold in the ADC market, Avi also helped VMware to flesh out its long-established software-defined networking (SDN) line. Avi was built to work with several popular SDN systems, such Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure and VMware NSX.
Integrating Avi with NSX can have the following potential benefits for customers, according to VMware:
- automates network system administration, so technicians spend more time on strategic initiatives and less on mundane tasks, such as manual network configurations;
- networks become more elastic -- adding bandwidth or reconfiguring traffic patterns requires less manual intervention;
- networks become more resilient as Avi's tools automatically monitor network performance and make changes when problems arise; and
- Avi includes analytic features that can operate in real time, giving technicians a better view of system operations and letting them manage systems more proactively.
Layer 1 to Layer 7 management
VMware customers benefit from the Avi purchase in a few ways. VMware integrated Avi with vCenter, so customers can deploy Avi from a familiar management console.
"The vendor who controls the management system controls the data center," said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research, an Acton, Mass., consulting firm.
The ADC industry is moving away from standalone management products because of limitations, such as their complexity, the amount of integration they require and their inefficiency. Instead, vendors want to deliver a single ADC product that works with all layers.
Vendors began work at the lower network layers and then moved up the stack to the application layer at the top. Former Cisco executives founded Avi Networks on this principle.
What's next for VMware and Avi?
VMware's Virtual Cloud Network is a key part of its long-term software-defined data center plan. The goal is to build a software-defined network that runs across private, hybrid and public cloud infrastructures and ties dispersed systems into a cohesive whole, offers high levels of automation and reduces manual input even further.
On top, a multi-cloud service mesh relies on microservices to connect containers that house application building blocks. Developers can then mix and match features without worrying about coding the underlying infrastructure.
Avi delivers a software-defined ADC in the short term. In the longer term, the purchase is a key element in VMware's plan to evolve vSphere into a Layer 1 to Layer 7 software-defined management product.
However, certain desired functions remain missing.
"Now, Avi doesn't integrate into multi-cloud environments as well as competitors, like Nginx," Kerravala said. VMware is likely to address such limitations but hasn't done so yet.