One of the recent issues in the enterprise networking field has been the lack of vendor-agnostic data center management software. Generally, the main vendors for data center products – such as Cisco, Juniper and Brocade – have been improving automation tools that are meant for their specific environments. While these suppliers have done well in enhancing their products, they fail to address the problem of enterprises who want multiple-vendor products in their data center. And indeed, many enterprises (particularly large ones) prefer multiple types of data center management software in their data center. Some of these companies have chosen to standardize to one such product per data center; those who don’t face compatibility issues in exchange for trying to get the best of both worlds. While software-defined networking (SDN) was supposed to solve these network management problems, it has not been the desired silver bullet solution.
In response to this conundrum, some companies have been engineering potential solutions for large, multi-vendor data centers. One of these companies is a Silicon Valley startup called Apstra, which is funded by Stanford University professor David Cheriton. Apstra uses their own operating system, called AOS, to fully automate the data center at a higher level of virtualization. (This is shown in the diagram below.) AOS helps networking professionals to create their desired network infrastructure by helping turn business goals into specific infrastructure designs. AOS collects high-definition, real-time telemetry and uses it to continuously validate network performance and configuration. It also provides analytics based on the collected data so that networking professionals can verify that the network is set up properly.
Of course, the main draw behind Apstra’s product offering is that it is vendor-agnostic. According to a recent NetworkWorld article, it accomplishes this by treating “every network device as a simple component with assigned roles”. The AOS is fully capable of collecting telemetry information from a variety of networking hardware, and comes equipped with the necessary drivers. This “variety of hardware” includes products from Arista, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Juniper, and generic Ubuntu servers, among other options. Apstra has also made their platform open-source so that developers are encouraged to expand on its capabilities. Specifically, this will allow developers to make drivers that will allow Apstra’s product to interface with even more networking devices. This accessibility should pay off in adding value to an already promising product.
One question that might naturally arise in the minds of networking professionals is, “Isn’t this SDN?” And indeed, Apstra’s addition of a layer of virtualization to the network might sound similar to SDN; however, there are some differences between the two. According to Apstra Founder and CEO Mansour Karam, SDN uses a bottom-up approach to agile networking, while Apstra attempts to solve from the top down. Instead of taking low-level network devices (such as switches) and trying to implement their functions in software, Apstra starts with the networking business objectives and creates a blueprint based on that. However, Apstra can also be made to co-exist with SDN in the same networking environment. This will be a key, since SDN shows no signs of going away in the networking world.