PALO ALTO, California — Martin Casado stands up, reaches across the table, and tears a sheet of paper from a notebook. The notebook belongs to Alan Cohen, who works alongside Casado at Nicira, the most intriguing startup in Silicon Valley, and as Casado sits back down with his sheet of paper, Cohen keeps talking.
Cohen knows how to talk. He spent six years as a marketing exec at Cisco, the company that sells more networking hardware than anyone else in the world, and now, he’s plugging Nicira, a company that wants to make Cisco irrelevant, taking the brains out of network hardware and moving them into software. As Cohen gives the elevator pitch — “we’ve created a new category: we’re a network virtualization company” — Casado, the company’s chief technology officer, is quietly doodling on his piece of paper. He’s making lists and drawing pictures and linking them all together in some sort of elaborate flowchart.
As it turns out, he’s mapping out what he will soon tell us about the origins of his nearly-five-year-old company and its lofty mission. “I was putting together a narrative,” he says. “I’m a pretty linear thinker.” That he is. But this doesn’t quite do justice to the way his mind works. “Martin Casado is fucking amazing,” says Scott Shenker, the physics PhD, UC Berkeley computer science professor, and former Xerox PARC researcher who has worked closely with Casado for the past several years on the networking problems Nicira is trying to solve. “I’ve known a lot of smart people in my life, and on any dimension you care to mention, he’s off the scale.”
In much the same way he maps out his narrative with pen and paper, Casado has mapped out a new future for the world of networking. He and Nicira and a small community of other computer scientists are pioneering a new breed of computer network that exists only as software, a network you can control independently of the physical switches and routers running beneath it. With this paradoxical arrangement, they aim to provide a far easier way of building and modifying and rebuilding the networks that run the largest services on the web and beyond.
In short, Martin Casado envisions a world where networks can be programmed like computers.
“Anyone can buy a bunch of computers and throw a bunch of software engineers at them and come up with something awesome, and I think you should be able to do the same with the network,” Casado says. “We’ve come up with a network architecture that lets you have the flexibility you have with computers, and it works with any networking hardware.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re using gear from Cisco or HP or Juniper or some manufacturer in Taiwan most people have never heard of. With Nicira’s platform, the hardware merely moves network packets to and fro, and the software does the thinking.
Casado’s effort to overhaul the world’s networks is well underway. The Nicira website will tell you its platform is already used by AT&T, eBay, Japanese telecom NTT, financial giant Fidelity, and Rackspace, the Texas-based outfit that trails only Amazon in the cloud computing game. But the company’s influence extends much further. Though he won’t name them, Casado says the Nicira platform is also used by some of the biggest names on the web. And we all know who those are.“Martin Casado is fucking amazing. I’ve known a lot of smart people in my life, and on any dimension you care to mention, he’s off the scale.”
“That’s one of the reasons we knew we were on to something,” Casado says. “In the beginning, we thought we were just a cute cottage industry. But then we had multiple large web companies say, ‘We were already doing something very similar to this, and we’d like to work with you.’”
The platform is so attractive to these companies because today’s hardware networks are ridiculously difficult to modify. Raymie Stata, until recently the chief technology officer of Yahoo, compares a complex computer network to the 15-puzzle game, that classic mind-bender were you’re trying to rearrange 15 sliding tiles inside a square with space for only 16. When making a change to your network, he says, there are times when you have no choice but to physically rearrange the hardware.
In virtualizing the network, Nicira lets you make such changes in software, without touching the underlying hardware gear. “What Nicira has done is take the intelligence that sits inside switches and routers and moved that up into software so that the switches don’t need to know much,” says John Engates, the chief technology officer of Rackspace, which has been working with Nicira since 2009 and is now using the Nicira platform to help drive a new beta version of its cloud service. “They’ve put the power in the hands of the cloud architect rather than the network architect.”
The Trouble With The Most Secure Networks Ever Built
Martin Casado once worked with a U.S. intelligence agency. He won’t name the agency, but he says he worked with what he believed to be the most secure computer networks ever built. The trouble, he says, was that building these networks was next to impossible, and if you ever wanted to change them, your problems started all over again.
“What was really shocking to me was that, at the time, market forces had totally failed to create networking equipment that the government could use. The government, which has incredibly deep pockets, couldn’t go out and buy what it wanted,” Casado says. “It was extremely difficult to make these networks secure, and once you did, you had a really horrible management nightmare on your hands. Moving just one computer, for example, meant you had to make eight different configuration changes. You couldn’t move anything — you couldn’t touch anything — unless you put a tremendous number of people to work.”
Once you bought a piece of networking hardware, says Shenker, you didn’t really have the freedom to re-program it. “Stuff had to be coded directly into the switch or the router. You would buy a router from Cisco and it would come with whatever protocols it supported and that’s what you ran.”“What was really shocking to me was that, at the time, market forces had totally failed to create networking equipment that the government could use”
Shenker says there was good reason for this. “If you buy switches from a company and you expect them to work,” he explains. “A networking company doesn’t want to give you access and have you come running to them when your network melts down because of something you did.” But these restrictions caused huge problems for organizations who were pushing the boundaries of network design, including not only intelligence agencies like the one Casado worked for, but massive web companies such as Google and Amazon.
In 2005, Google went so far as to build its own networking hardware, in part because it needed more control over how the hardware operated. “When Google looked at their network, they need high-bandwidth connections between their servers and they wanted to be able to manage things — at scale,” says JR Rivers, one of the engineers who worked on Google’s original network hardware designs. “With the traditional enterprise networking vendors, they just couldn’t get there. The cost was too high, and the systems were too closed to be manageable on a network of that size.”
So, after he left his government job in 2003 and enrolled in graduate school at Stanford, the Silicon Valley university that spawned Google, Martin Casado resolved to build a new kind of network, a network that wasn’t such a nightmare. “There was a realization that networks blow — that they suck,” Casado remembers. “When I went to Stanford, this is the problem I worked on: how do we make networks not suck? We want them to be as flexible and as programmatic as computers.”
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