Inkra has closed a deal with Savvis, which will use its technology for virtualizing Internet Protocol services such as firewalls and load balancing.
The agreement hardly comes as a surprise, though, considering that the service provider had already sung the praises of Inkra's virtual services switch in earlier tests. Cutting operating costs is atop the agenda at enterprises and service providers, and if Savvis is to be believed, that is exactly what the Inkra switch has done – which may boost its enterprise campaign.
ContextInkra's name is derived from the German word for 'becoming effective' – 'inkrafttreten.' Data center management is a hot item among venture capitalists, who believe that there are plenty of opportunities for a company that can remove the complexities of managing firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs) and load balancers. That, in part, explains Inkra's $35 million in first-round funding, divided between equity and debt, in March last year. The deal with Savvis doesn't hurt its chances of closing a second round, which must be in the works, although publicly the company has said it has resources to last until the end of the year.
Inkra has developed a virtual services architecture that consolidates several IP service appliances – firewalls, load balancers, IPSec VPNs and Web acceleration – on a single system.
Inkra claims that with the demise of appliance maker Nexsi, it faces no direct competitors. Nexsi had burned through $90 million in cash over 18 months when it shut down and laid off 175 employees at the end of April. It had lost the confidence of its investors because of the cost associated with its silicon development and an acrimonious dispute among the founder, senior management and VCs. Nexsi's technology could be resurrected if Juniper makes use of the IP it bought for $2.5 million when the company shut down. Crossbeam is another startup appliance vendor, but has focused on simplifying the management of firewalls.
While there are no other startups extant with the same approach, there is plenty of opposition from established datacenter equipment vendors like Cisco, Nortel, NetScreen, Nokia, Extreme and Foundry. The greatest threat to Inkra is that any one of the established vendors could adopt an appliance strategy and start to integrate more functionality into their boxes. NetScreen and F5 have already shown some intention to move toward a virtualization strategy. Inkra contends that are some specific architectural issues that stand in the way of NetScreen virtualizing the firewall function.
Development at Inkra has been split between silicon and software to create a platform that combines hardware and software, although a good deal of resources are currently dedicated to beefing up management capabilities. The architecture is based on internally developed low-level packet processors and its Virtual Rack operating system that accelerates the packets. The composition of the elements is a response to the perennial dilemma of whether a platform should be implemented in hardware to avoid performance issues or software to maintain flexibility.
Inkra claims it can get around performance issues by delegating the low-level packet processing to the hardware, but once the decision is made about policy for the packets, the platform can handle them using software. Inkra reckons that its 'dynamic container' or 'virtual rack,' with service software modules that actually sit on top of its own Virtual Rack OS, is crucial to its virtualization story. Without the ability to bundle features to the software load and slice the box to serve multiple customers and applications, the platform won't deliver the operational savings required to entice data center operators.
Inkra founder and vice president of marketing Dave Roberts estimates that about two-thirds of the company's research and development efforts are dedicated to software, and half of those engineers are focused on management. Inkra has no intention of getting into multivendor device management, Roberts told the451, but as a necessary step for integration, devices like firewalls and load balancers have to be plugged into the virtual rack. The virtualization platform only yields the savings when multiple functions are 'contained' in the virtual rack architecture.
The Savvis deployment hardly comes as a surprise, since the service provider was talking about testing the switches back in April. But like many networking startups, Inkra isn't relying on service providers to pay the bills. Much of the focus at the moment is on enterprises that invested heavily during the late 1990s in extensive data centers and are now struggling to keep costs under control. Many are now exploring data center consolidation, and it's not uncommon for companies – particularly in the financial services sector – to have as many 30 data centers.
According to Savvis chief executive officer Rob McCormick, the service provider was looking around for a 'virtual version' of a Foundry switch when it came across Inkra. But it was the operational savings and network availability that finally sold Savvis on the Inkra platform for its data center management. Because the Inkra platform is about one-tenth of the cost of a new firewall and provides better availability, Savvis is willing to gradually phase out the firewalls it has already bought.
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