A network automation startup funded by David Cheriton, billionaire co-founder of Arista and early investor in VMware and Google, is exiting stealth mode. Apstra has built an operating system to manage data center networks comprising hardware from multiple vendors, including Cisco, Arista, Juniper and others.
The problem that Apstra is trying to solve is familiar -- indeed, every networking vendor and network operator is trying to solve it. Configuring networks is a slow and complicated process; Apstra is looking to streamline it.
"The network is in the way of the business," Apstra CEO and co-founder Mansour Karam tells Light Reading. "Everybody understands that. Network engineers are in the middle of this. They need to be empowered with the right tools."
The Apstra Operating System (AOS) takes advantage of the current generation of networking devices that use APIs to enable them to be configured programmatically. Even a few years ago, that wasn't the case. "The timing is right," Karam says.
AOS is designed to give networks the agility required for the cloud. "Private cloud needs to be agile. You can't have private cloud if it takes you days and weeks to configure network services. That has been our focus," Karam says.
AOS comprises software agents that sit on top of each network device, communicating with software running on a central appliance that provides intelligence. AOS manages the network as an entire system rather than as individual components, Karam says. Rather than configuring each device, the network operator describes the desired results -- the "intent," in Apstra's terms -- and AOS automatically takes action to achieve those results. AOS also knows what telemetry is needed from each device to ensure that the network doesn't deviate from the intent.
Examples of intent include controlling overall data center bandwidth and connectivity. An operator might want to add 100 servers to the data center in a non-blocking configuration, so that each server connects directly to each and every other server to avoid congestion points. Alternately, an operator might oversubscribe servers to the network, sharing bandwidth and risking occasional suggestion. Intents can isolate groups of servers from each other in virtual LANs. Apstra can automatically configure and manage those kinds of setups and more.
"You have the ability to automate maintenance workflows and any changes you want in the infrastructure," Karam says. "You can just change your intent, modify the blueprint, and Apstra takes care of implementing the infrastructure and making sure it's continuously valid."
Apstra faces tough competition, and a lot of it, in the network automation market. To name just two examples: Network automation is at the core of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s Application Centric Infrastructure strategy, using the company's popular Nexus 9000 switch. Cisco recently introduced its Tetration analytics to further automate network management based on telemetry. (See Cisco Launches Data Center Analytics for Obsessives.)
Likewise, VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) acquired Arkin this month to manage and automate NSX networks. (See VMware Grabs Arkin for Data Center Automation.)
Apstra says it has several differentiators over the competition. It views the network holistically, not as a set of individual components to be managed separately from each other; it allows the network operator to keep existing hardware and not build greenfield networks; and it manages based on intent -- outcomes -- rather than configuring the device directly. Some of Apstra's competition fits one or more of those criteria -- for example, VMware NSX works on existing, multivendor hardware -- but Apstra says it's got it all.
The differentiation between what Apstra is doing and its competition is subtle at best -- and might just be marketing handwaving. On the other hand, Apstra's differentiation might become apparent over time.
And of course execution is key. Apstra can succeed with similar products to its competition if its product is better, or fills some specific need the others miss.
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And Apstra certainly has the pedigree for success. Cheriton, who is funding the company from his own pocket, teaches computer sciences at Stanford University, where he pioneered SDN. His skills and investments have given him an estimated net worth of $3.4 billion, putting him in a 32-way tie for the 495th wealthiest person in the world. (Editor's Note: Does he stay up at night grinding his teeth and plotting against the other 31 guys?)
Karam is an Arista alum and was VP business development at SDN startup Big Switch Networks . And CTO and co-founder Sasha Ratkovic was an engineer at Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) and CTO of cPlane.
Apstra was founded in April 2014, and has between 25 and 50 employees.
AOS went into its first alpha in the third quarter of 2015, and now has about 10-20 trials in progress or in the planning stages.
The software will be subscription based, and will be available this summer.
— Mitch Wagner, , Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud.