Network Virtualization 101: The NV

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In previous article, I have discussed about historical perspective of Network virtualization ( ): how the need to share resources and induce flexibility and programmability in network environment led to the series of research undertakings, e.g. MBone project (Almeroth, C.K., 2000) – an experimental backbone project for carrying IP “multicast” that was developed in 1994. If you have not read that article, I suggest that you do: it will help you understand the development in network virtualization and benefits thereof.

Figure 1. Timeline of Network Virtualization.

This article is third in the “Network Virtualization 101” series.

In the previous article, I presented a review of network programmability works in four stages rather than in chronological order: three stages were discussed in earlier section and the fourth “network virtualization” (NV) is presented herein as follows.

The notion of “network virtualization” (NV) can be understood as decoupling physical topology from logical topology (e.g., Overlay networks) and as such, implementation does not require SDN. Similarly, the common notion of SDN (separation of control plane and data plane) does not require network virtualization. This distinction is important since many may be confuse by the symbiotic nature in which network virtualization and SDN relate (Feamster, N., Rexford, J. & Zegura, E., 2014):

  •          SDN as enabling technology: with the advent of cloud computing, service providers faced the challenge to share and isolate resources to multiple tenants in a way that make best use of available network infrastructure. A common method to share such isolation at VM level is to use overlay networks through protocols such as VxLAN and NVGRE. While VxLAN and/or NVGRE does not require SDN to implement but having the capability to provision the network for VxLAN and/or NVGRE from centralized server surely helpful.  Another example of SDN as an enabling is Nicira’s network virtualization platform or NVP.  The NVP framework implements Open vSwitch (a virtual switching platform), a controller and South bound API to facilitate network transport. The Open vSwitch is hardware agnostic and can be implemented in servers without the need for networking gears.
  •         Slicing or virtualizing an SDN: A hybrid switch for example implements both traditional protocol suits and OF (OpenFlow) agents and other flow control APIs. With appropriate arbitration mechanisms, network flow can be logically separated from other logical instances of network. Similarly, Flowvisor (a special purpose controller that works as transport proxy between OF agent and OF controller) allows slicing of network resources and delegates control of each slice to a different controller (Flowvisor, 2014).


From historical perspective, the work on Network virtualization can be predated to the early days of MBone experiment. The MBone otherwise known as “Multicast Backbone” is a virtual network built on top of internet. It was invented by Van Jacobson, Steve Deering and Stephen Casner in 1992 as part of an undertaking by IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force).  In the early 1990s, majority of the routers in the internet did not support IP Multicasting and packets were transported through IP unicast. As a result one-to-many communication was difficult. The solution was MBone or “Multicast Backbone” in which multicast function provided by workstation running a daemon process known as “mrouted” (Almeroth, 2000). Workstation running “mrouted” process is known as “mrouter” (essentially a multicast router). These mrouters are than placed in special group of LAN or single LAN that are multicast capable. The “mrouted” process received unicast-encapsulated multicast packets on an incoming interface and then forwarded packets over the appropriate set of outgoing interfaces. Connectivity among these machines was provided using point-to-point, IP-encapsulated tunnels. Each tunnel is connected two endpoints via one logical link. The routing decisions were made using DVMRP (Distance Vector Routing Protocol) as shown the figure below.

Figure 2. MBone topology during the early years of its deployment.


The DVMRP since then replaced by PIM (Protocol Independent Multicast) helping MBone to be integrated with internet than its initial attempts. For many years, network equipment supported the creation of virtual networks, e.g. VLAN which allows the creation of multiple logical networks on top of physical topology. But such network virtualization is limited to L2 network segments and impedes on the deployment of new technologies traversing across the network. To overcome this, researchers and practitioner resorted to running overlay networks which allows endpoint nodes to run their own control plane and forward data traffic and control-plane message across the networks traversing multi hop L3 networks.  The MBone (for multicast) and 6Bone (for IPV6) are example of such overlay network virtualization. In the previous article, I discussed example of overlay network architecture and some of the protocol used for tunneling and will explore this further in the succeeding articles about network virtualization configurations. The complete survey of network virtualization is cumbersome, however, the historical perspective I am presenting herein, though brief, is important in the research of network programmability (SDN) and in the gradual development of programmable and dynamic network systems. It is to be noted both SDN and network virtualization is tightly coupled despite their distinctions. Programmable network (i.e. SDN) often presume “network virtualization” as an integral part to share network infrastructure for multi-tenant services supporting logical network topologies that differ from physical network. The early overlay network that is essential in evaluating and understanding “network virtualization” often used dedicated nodes running special protocols. The notion of such early day overlay network soon expanded to include any host computer that run special application in hope of supporting peer to peer file sharing application (e.g. Napster; Wikipedia, 2015). The research on peer to peer networking reignited interest and research works in the development of robust overlay network technologies. An example of such work is “Resilient Overlay Networks” (Andersen et al., 2015) in which a small number of network nodes form overlay network detecting network failure and recovering quickly from network issues and performance problem. Since overlay network does not require any special equipment (unlike Active network; please refer to my previous article), researchers began building experimental infrastructure like Planetlab (Peterson et al., 2002) to support wider research works on network virtualization. Interestingly, PlanetLab itself was a form of “programmable router/switch” active networking, but using a collection of servers rather than the network nodes, and offering programmers a conventional operating system (i.e., Linux) (Feamster, N., Rexford, J. & Zegura, E., 2014). The project of GENI (GENI, 2015) took this notion of programmable virtual network infrastructure to next level supporting much large scale national experimental for research in networking and distributed system.


Figure 3. GENI – The vast experimental virtualized network infrastructure project (GENI, 2015). Figure (Courtsey, GENI, 2015).

If you are interested in experimenting your concept in a virtualized network infrastructure, please visit and join the project.

Considering the project like GENI, one can easily perceive the potential of network virtualization. Some researchers argued that network virtualization is key to next generation internet architecture. In the first article of this series, discussing about NVE (Network Virtualization Environment) I explored the theoretical connotations from various scholars regarding the need for next generation internet and service provider network in which multiple network architectures can coexist at the same time (each optimized for different applications or requirements, or run by different business entities), and evolve over time to meet changing needs (Feamster, N., Rexford, J. & Zegura, E., 2014; Carapinha & Jiménez, 2009; Chowdhury & Boutaba, 2009; Chowdhury & Boutaba, 2008).

I hope this brief overview of NV (Network Virtualization) is helpful in understanding the difference and dependencies between network virtualization and SDN and the importance of network virtualization in future network design. You will find the basic understanding helpful in the succeeding articles about network architecture and configurations.

In the next article, I will extend the notion of Network Virtualization to VNF (Virtual Network Function) and NFV (Network Function Virtualization).  Please stay tune and follow me at linkedin ( ), twitter @dchowdhu ( ) and google plus ( ). You may also subscribe to all these feeds through Agema System’s linkedin page at


[Almeroth, C.K., 2000] Almeroth, C.K., 2000. The Evolution of Multicast: From the MBone to Interdomain Multicast to Internet2 Deployment. IEEE Network. Available online at .

[Andersen et al., 2001] Andersen, D. G., Balakrishnan, H., Kaashoek, M. F. & Morris, R., 2015. Resilient Overlay Networks. In Proc. 18th ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles (SOSP), pages 131–145, Banff, Canada, Oct. 2001.

[Carapinha, J. & Jiménez, J. 2009] Carapinha, J. & Jiménez, J. 2009. VISA ’09 Proceedings of the 1st ACM workshop on Virtualized infrastructure systems and architectures. The ACM Digital Library.

[Chowdhury, K.M.M.N. & Boutaba, R., 2008 ] Chowdhury, K.M.M.N. & Boutaba, R., 2008. A Survey of Network Virtualization. Technical Report CS-2008-25. University of Waterloo.

[Chowdhury, K.M.M.N. & Boutaba, R., 2009 ] Chowdhury, K.M.M.N. & Boutaba, R., 2009. Network Virtualization: State of the Art and Research Challenges. IEEE COMMUNICATIONS MAGAZINE.

[Clark et al., 2006] Clark, D., Lehr, B., Bauer, S., Faratin, P., Sami, R. & Wroclawski, J., 2006. Overlay Networks and the Future of the Internet. Communications & Strategies, no. 63, 3rd quarter 2006, p. 109.

[Feamster, N., Rexford, J. & Zegura, E., 2014] Feamster, N., Rexford, J. & Zegura, E., 2014. The Road to SDN: An Intellectual History of Programmable Networks. ACM Queue, 2014.

Flowvisor, 2014. Flowvisor. Atlassian Confluence Open Source Project: University of Stanford. Available online at

[Feamster et al., 2004] Feamster, N., Balakrishnan, H., Rexford, J., Shaikh, A. & van der Merwe, J., 2004. The Case for Separating Routing from Routers. SIGCOMM’04 Workshops, Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 2004, Portland, Oregon, USA.

[GENI, 2015] GENI: Global Environment for Network Innovations. Available online at

[Peterson, et al., 2002] Peterson, L., Anderson, T., Culler, D. & Roscoe, T., 2002. A Blueprint for Introducing Disruptive Technology into the Internet. Planet Lab. Proceedings of the First ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks (HotNets-I), Princeton, NJ, October 2002.


 [Wikipedia, 2015]. Wikipedia, 2015. Napster. Wikipedia: The free Encyclopedia. Available online at


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