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Kubernetes networking face-off: VMware NSX-T vs. Nokia's Nuage

VMware NSX-T and Nokia's Nuage Networks both provide Kubernetes networking functionality -- but they have important differences and resonate with distinct user bases.

For Kubernetes applications, virtual networking technology separates connectivity from physical networks, providing the agility that cloud computing and virtualization demand. Without the right virtual networking approach, virtualization, cloud services and containers are limited.

Kubernetes virtual networking has two faces. The first is Kubernetes itself, and the cloud and data center ecosystems it supports, which together use virtual networks to build connectivity among and within clusters. The second is virtual networks at the user level, including for applications hosted on the public cloud. Enterprises increasingly manage virtual networks at the user level via software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). Compare virtual network tools based on both data center and user connectivity requirements.

In the data center or in the cloud, Kubernetes -- like most application tools -- recognizes networks through IP addresses, which means that almost anything that supports IP addressing can work with Kubernetes. The Kubernetes networking model enables an admin to specify a virtual network implementation, and that's why container/Kubernetes users have to look at virtual networking platforms -- the options for which increase annually.

Two of those key options are VMware NSX -- particularly NSX-T -- and Nokia's Nuage Networks. Ultimately, the best choice for Kubernetes networking depends more on a platform's networking functionality than on Kubernetes itself.

A brief history lesson

Nokia is better known in the service provider market than in enterprise networking. Alcatel-Lucent started Nuage Networks as an internal startup in 2013 to create a virtual network; Nokia then purchased Alcatel-Lucent in 2015. Nuage brings a unique level of integration between the physical network and the virtual network overlay. Its Virtualized Network Service (VNS) was originally an implementation of SDN designed specifically to build connectivity in large, multi-tenant cloud data centers, but retain a connection to the transport network.

VMware is a better-known name among enterprises, in particular for its vSphere virtualization and VM hosting. VMware acquired its virtual networking platform -- NSX -- when it purchased Nicira in 2012, but had begun an active virtual-switch effort a decade earlier. Nicira, like Nuage, began work to solve the problem of tenant and application separation in cloud data centers in 2007. VMware has an active service provider and cloud provider sales strategy, but it has presented NSX-T as an enterprise tool first and foremost.

Nuage advanced its SDN strategy in 2018 to include SD-WAN 2.0. Its SD-WAN services integrate fully with VNS -- and through it to the transport network. This is possible because VNS, from its outset, had the ability to extend through a software agent to end users; SD-WAN 2.0 improved that capability.

VMware acquired VeloCloud, an SD-WAN startup, in 2017, and began work to integrate it fully with NSX-T. In 2019, that integration became mostly complete at the functional level: IT admins can integrate NSX-T data center networks with VeloCloud SD-WAN, but the linkage isn't as seamless as it is with Nuage. However, it does work, and most users probably won't see -- or care about -- the fact that the entire setup isn't NSX-T from end to end.

Virtual network planning and installation

So how do these two products compare? Let's start with the issue of virtual network planning and installation.

VMware, as a data center incumbent, understands the process of building data center virtual networks and extending them to the cloud. The company also understands the approval politics for major IT projects, and senior management in the enterprise recognizes and accepts the VMware name. Nokia's Nuage has a fraction of VMware's presence in the enterprise market, and less experience in enterprise data centers as a result. VMware is a Kubernetes supplier and continues to expand its Kubernetes portfolio, whereas Nokia is not a Kubernetes source for enterprises. Advantage: VMware.

When it comes to installation and setup, both NSX-T and Nuage integrate well with Kubernetes and provide adequate documentation for data center network and SD-WAN setup. Some users believe Nokia performs a more professional and thorough job with the installation process, possibly because of the company's experience with the demanding service provider world. On the other hand, VMware has better documentation, according to users, and skilled personnel with VMware NSX-T experience are readily available. Third-party professional services for NSX-T are also easier to acquire than those for Nuage Networks. This category results in a tie.

Resource and user connectivity

Many users must connect a wide variety of resources and hosting locations, including data center VMs, containers and cloud services in single or multiple public clouds. VMware connects all forms of data centers and supports all the major public clouds in hybrid and multi-cloud setups, but the required product mix varies depending on whether the data center architecture is built on vSphere. Nuage uses a common VNS with SDN/SD-WAN technology throughout, and its support personnel have experience in very large, complex and highly distributed networks. Users say this point works most strongly against VMware: The more varied your organization's hosting needs are, the more difficult it is for VMware NSX-T to cover them. Advantage: Nokia's Nuage.

To connect users in remote locations is a notable issue for companies, as VPNs often don't extend to small sites or remote areas. SD-WANs are proliferating due to their ability to connect any site and reduce connection costs. VeloCloud is a recognized SD-WAN leader with a VMware reseller network to support the product. Nokia has professional support for VNS SD-WAN 2.0, but, again, it's not as broadly recognized in the enterprise market. Advantage: VMware.

Performance

For ongoing performance and stability, Nokia has worked extensively to optimize the scalability and performance in its data center networks, which can support large-scale cloud installations. VMware lacks the same level of scale and experience in this area, and users rate its network performance and scalability lower than Nuage. The single-network VNS model is also easier to test and diagnose than the current NSX-T-VeloCloud combination. Advantage: Nokia's Nuage.

User base and Kubernetes experience

Based on the above categories, the two virtual networking platforms stand tied, which is a common perception in the market. To break the tie, let's explore user base considerations and Kubernetes experience.

Nuage Network's user base consists of large organizations almost entirely -- organizations which are likely to be Nuage-supported via a national accounts program. Small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) might struggle to find a Nuage reseller team to sell to them and support them. VMware has a much more diverse customer base, spanning not only enterprises but also SMBs. Larger organizations can have national account support or the support of major resellers, while smaller organizations still have access to multiple resellers in most geographical areas.

VMware NSX-T has significantly more users with Kubernetes experience than Nuage can count for VNS. One reason for this is that VMware's reseller program makes NSX-T an obvious option for Kubernetes networking, whereas VNS is much less commonly recognized. However, Nuage still gets strong endorsements from large Kubernetes users.

And the winner is …

We can now identify a winner in our face-off -- with a qualifier. For enterprises that plan to build very large data centers with diverse software hosting choices, extend hosting across multiple cloud providers, and maintain and troubleshoot networks from a central network operations center, Nuage has the technically superior tool, with proven scalability, performance and stability. Large enterprises with complex Kubernetes deployments should assess Nuage first for their Kubernetes networking needs.

However, most users don't fit that model. Consider VMware's Kubernetes networking platform if your organization:

  • is already a VMware customer via vSphere;
  • wants a complete container ecosystem provider, not just a Kubernetes networking provider;
  • plans to harmonize its data center and cloud hosting around containers and Kubernetes; or
  • has typical- to smaller-scale IT requirements overall

In other words, for more basic Kubernetes networking requirements, choose VMware.

VMware is -- at time of publication -- working to integrate VeloCloud and NSX-T and to provide a full-scale Kubernetes ecosystem. It also has an aggressive program to sell to both service providers and cloud providers, and all these initiatives will enrich its Kubernetes product family. Finally, VMware unveiled at the VMworld 2019 conference that it will integrate NSX-T with Dell data center switches, which also suggests a move to couple virtual Kubernetes networking with transport network devices.

Over time, this face-off is likely to lean decisively in VMware's favor.

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