With $40 million in funding, an all-star bench of investors and engineers, and technology that has already drawn spies, Nicira is an unusually visible company in the supposedly secretive “stealth” stage of its early life…
Its biggest mystery may be what kind of challenge its “network virtualization” will do to the likes of Cisco, Juniper, Hewlett-Packard and other companies in the multibillion-dollar computer networking business.
It’s hard to get a satisfying answer to that question from Steven Mullaney, chief executive of Nicira. “We are the most non-disruptive disruptive company out there,” he says. “All the networking companies will be around.” What he may be ripping out, however, is the most valuable part of those companies’ business: the brains that govern what they do. He would not say when this will start, but indications are that it is a matter of months.
Here is what is known: In August, a press release from N.T.T., Japan’s largest telephone company, indicated that Nicira’s software had enabled it to move the actions of thousands of computers from one building to another without missing a beat. N.T.T. noted that this was now only possible with a lot of adjustment between the two sides of the transaction. Using Nicira, it said, a company could do it without any planning or configuration.
If so, Nicira is solving a tough problem in the emerging world of cloud computing: how to move data all over the world quickly and efficiently. Specialists at Google and Amazon work on this problem now, but the difficulty and cost put it out of the reach of most companies.
Not for long, says Mr. Mullaney. “We enable you to be more like Amazon, with a platform for innovation that also saves you money. What’s that worth?” He said, “All people care about now is business velocity. That is why people want to go to the cloud. We will enable lots of service providers to act more like Amazon.”
In cloud computing, huge resources of data storage, computation and communications exist in remote structures with thousands of computers. These big data centers work with other large systems scattered around the globe, ideally working through millions of tasks, like showing videos or fetching sales projections, at once, with no regard from the customer for where the computing is actually taking place.
Nicira could take out much of the costly software and talent involved in running traditional networks if it left the tasks of moving packets of data inside the networking hardware while shifting tasks of setting up which computers receive what information under what conditions to its software. A diagram accompanying the N.T.T. press release indicated that Nicira could set up separate “virtual” networks within existing hardware, changing on the fly things like levels of security and numbers of computers involved in any system.
Judging from that, Nicira could be to networking something like what VMWare was to computer servers, a company that came out of nowhere and with clever software sharply dropped the price a hardware maker could get for a server. Diane Greene, a founder of VMWare, is an investor in Nicira, along with the venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Ventures, and New Enterprise Associates. Mr. Mullaney has recruited senior engineers from VMWare, Google, Juniper and Cisco, among others.
They are not the only ones attracted to Nicira. About six months ago, someone broke into the company’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters and took a particularly valuable laptop containing a significant amount of Nicira’s intellectual property. While some people aware of the situation speculate the thief was an agent of a foreign government, Mr. Mullaney would only acknowledge the loss, which he dismissed as “very early stuff, nothing like what we’ve got now.”
Nonetheless, during my brief visit, three large bins of material were carefully removed by a professional shredding company. No one, Mr. Mullaney said, was leaving anything sensitive on a laptop now.
The theft harks back to Nicira’s roots. The company originated with Martin Casado, now its chief technology officer. According to Mr. Mullaney, Mr. Casado was working on network security for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory some years ago, when he was asked by United States intelligence agencies to figure out how to run a global network that could continually change levels of security and authorization.
“They needed something that would be flexible all the time,” Mr. Mullaney said. “He couldn’t do it, so he went to Stanford to solve the problem.” While at Stanford, Mr. Casado began what would eventually be Nicira with Nick McKeown, a professor there, and Scott Shenker, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.