Inkra offers 'virtual switches' to data centers

Hoping that data centers and very large enterprises will want to buy one box for providing IP (Internet Protocol) services rather than many boxes with limited functionality, Inkra Networks Inc. Monday announced its first two products, the Virtual Service Switch 1500 and 4000, which can provide a broad range of IP (Internet Protocol) services to multiple customers.

The Virtual Service Switch devices will allow data centers and large enterprises to consolidate the hardware used for providing IP services and ease hardware management by hosting the services offered to multiple customers on one box, rather than provisioning separate hardware for each customer, a common scenario, said Dave Roberts, vice president of marketing and co-founder of Inkra, located in Fremont, California. By adding different hardware and software components to each box, the Virtual Service Switches will be able to offer customers services such as a firewall, virtual private networking (VPN), SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) acceleration, load balancing, bandwidth management, and more, he said.

As their name suggests, each device creates a virtual "rack" that replaces the set of physical boxes that provide those services to customers, Roberts said. Despite hosting the data and services for multiple customers on the same device, Inkra has built measures into the products to ensure that all customers are separated from each other, just as if they used physically distinct products, he said. Thanks to this separation, one virtual rack can be rebooted without having to reboot the entire machine, he said.

The higher-end of the two boxes, the 4000, has a total of 14 slots, which can be filled with "blades" for management, I/O or service processing, Roberts said. At least one slot must have a management component in it, with a second reserved for additional management, but the remaining 12 can be filled with any combination of hardware, he said. The device will ship in the second quarter of 2002 at a cost of US$98,000.

The 1500, a 2U (approximately 9 centimeters or about 3.5 inches) high appliance, runs the same software as the 4000 and sports four Gigabit Ethernet ports, Roberts said. The 1500 will be available in the third quarter of 2002 and will cost $25,000.

Services can be added to the boxes individually, with each service costing between $5,000 and $10,000, though pricing varies, he added.

The devices can also be integrated into existing networks, and made to work with existing products, thanks to an Inkra-developed technology called OpenRack, he said.

Inkra is not the first company to provide hardware designed to replace other boxes through virtualization. Firewall and VPN vendors NetScreen Technologies Inc. and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. have both introduced devices with some similar features in recent months.

One reason for the rise in these kinds of products is that "data centers are having some manageability problems" in regards to provisioning and having to provide services on smaller budgets, said Michael Hoch, senior Internet infrastructure analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. "Multifunction solutions are really hitting that (problem) head on," he said.

"The concept of a virtual switch makes a lot of sense," he said, as it allows customers to save money and time.

Another feature boosting Inkra's case is the OpenRack technology, which will allow it to interoperate with existing products, he said. This will be important because it's unlikely that companies with substantial hardware investments will outright replace their current products, but those companies might look to transition to Inkra hardware over time using OpenRack, he said.

One company considering making such a transition is Rackspace Managed Hosting, said Paul Froutan, vice president of engineering at Rackspace, located in San Antonio. Rackspace is a managed hosting and service provider with thousands of customers hosted on over 5,000 servers, Froutan said. Changing services or configurations for these customers often requires costly downtime or backup servers, but with Inkra's products, such costs and lost time could be largely eliminated, he said.

Cost savings in changing configurations make Inkra's offerings attractive, he said, but so do savings that could come in initial provisioning. Because of the ease of setting the Virtual Service Switches up, Rackspace could potentially automate their provisioning system, thus saving time and money when setting up new customers, he said.

Rackspace is currently in the very early stages of evaluating the Virtual Service Switch 4000, Froutan said.

If Rackspace were to purchase Inkra products, the company would likely integrate them with, rather than replace, its existing infrastructure, he said.

Though Froutan thinks that products like Inkra's "(are) the way things will go," the current economy does give him pause. Because service providers make their money in a different way than enterprises, Rackspace is talking to Inkra about alternative licensing schemes, he said. Nonetheless, if Rackspace can save money in the long term, the company would still consider making the purchases now, he said.

Aberdeen's Hoch expects that the economy could also be an obstacle to Inkra's launch, but that if the company can make a compelling case for cost-savings, it might be able to overcome the issue.

Inkra isn't likely to be the last company into this space, either, Hoch said. There are dozens of startups doing things that are at least somewhat similar, including major network companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., he said.

And they're coming into a good market, he said, noting that there is "strong interest from the IT buyers" for these offerings.

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