DriveNets nabs $208M at a $1B+ valuation for its cloud-based alternative to network routers

People and businesses are relying on the internet to get things done more than ever before, an opportunity but also an infrastructure headache for service providers that need to scale quickly and reliably to meet that demand.

Today, a startup that has built a clever, software-based way for them to expand their networks without buying costly equipment is announcing a major round of funding on the back of its business booming.

DriveNets — which provides software-based routing solutions to service providers that run them as virtualized services over “white box” generic architecture — has closed $208 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at over $1 billion post-money.

The plan will be to use the funding to continue building out the business internationally and to tailor it to more use cases beyond carriers, including the wave of bigger companies that stream large amounts of media and have some control over their networks as a result.

Future deals are still under NDA, CEO Ido Susan said, but he described the opportunity as a clear one: “If you want to serve bandwidth with low latency, if you want to offer strong 5G capability or cloud gaming, you need to be close to your end customer.”

The Series B is being D1 Capital Partners. Previous backers Bessemer Venture Partners and Pitango (which co-led DriveNets’ previous, $110 million round when it emerged from stealth) also made a significant investment, and Atreides Management also participated. This latest round was made at more than double DriveNets’ valuation in 2019.

D1 has been an especially prolific investor in the last year, going big on businesses that are seeing a lot of attention as a result of pandemic conditions. They include e-commerce giants Warby Parker and Instacart, fintech TransferWise, gaming engine Unity, online car sales platform Cazoo, and transportation startup Bolt.

DriveNets’ big round is based both on bigger trends in the market, as well as its own strong record.

Before this round, DriveNets had already counted AT&T among its customers, a major vote of confidence for the company and its virtual network approach, but it seems that recent circumstances and the spike in internet activity have brought more providers to consider its approach.

“The internet was growing 30%-40% annually even before Covid-19,” said Susan. “But even five years ago, incumbent carriers were coming to us saying, said no one can build virtual networks. Now, it’s not a question of whether it works or not, but when you will adopt it.”

Recent momentum for the company’s sales, he said, is very good. “Everyone is working and studying from home so you need more capacity and bandwidth in the network,” he added. 

DriveNets’ core product is a more flexible and cost-effective replacement for the traditional network router that relies on virtualized architecture. Traditionally, routers have been sold as vertically-integrated hardware solutions, bringing together both software and hardware into one branded big box, with companies like Cisco and Juniper Networks dominating the space.

In their place, as Susan and co-founder Hillel Kobrinsky envisioned it, DriveNets provides a solution that is based around generic white boxes. It currently works with three providers for these boxes, Susan said.

These work in conjunction with a system it has developed called Network Cloud, which in turn runs a networking stack called the DriveNets Operating System. Service providers control their systems of white boxes and other servers through a virtualized service run over Docker containers, using open APIs to automate and configure various network services.

This allows for more flexibility in capacity among the white box servers, but they can also be easily added and removed as needed. Essentially, it’s a system that disaggregates the software from the hardware, to make expanding the hardware much easier, and controlling the software significantly more flexible to boot.

(Ironically, my conversation with Susan took place over Zoom with him in his home office, which also doubles as a DIY workshop. So with a full array of hardware equipment surrounding Susan, we talked about how software would come to dominate the world.)

It’s a disruptive concept that potentially steps on a lot of toes, but Adam Fisher, a partner with Bessemer, said that he’s confident it’s one that will continue to gain traction.

“We are extremely enthusiastic about the company,” he said. “Aside from Ido and Hillel as entrepreneurs, we really connected with their vision. Network routing is moving to software and cloud architecture. We’re talking not just about the small parts here but the hearts and lungs of the system. DriveNets is starting with the hardest parts. Once one customer becomes multiple customers, you just realise it’s the future.”


Open-source communities fight over telco market

When you think of MWC Barcelona, chances are you’re thinking about the newest smartphones and other mobile gadgets, but that’s only half the story. Actually, it’s probably far less than half the story because the majority of the business that’s done at MWC is enterprise telco business. Not too long ago, that business was all about selling expensive proprietary hardware. Today, it’s about moving all of that into software — and a lot of that software is open source.

It’s maybe no surprise then that this year, the Linux Foundation (LF) has its own booth at MWC. It’s not massive, but it’s big enough to have its own meeting space. The booth is shared by the three LF projects: the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), Hyperleger and Linux Foundation Networking, the home of many of the foundational projects like ONAP and the Open Platform for NFV (OPNFV) that power many a modern network. And with the advent of 5G, there’s a lot of new market share to grab here.

To discuss the CNCF’s role at the event, I sat down with Dan Kohn, the executive director of the CNCF.

At MWC, the CNCF launched its testbed for comparing the performance of virtual network functions on OpenStack and what the CNCF calls cloud-native network functions, using Kubernetes (with the help of bare-metal host Packet). The project’s results — at least so far — show that the cloud-native container-based stack can handle far more network functions per second than the competing OpenStack code.

“The message that we are sending is that Kubernetes as a universal platform that runs on top of bare metal or any cloud, most of your virtual network functions can be ported over to cloud-native network functions,” Kohn said. “All of your operating support system, all of your business support system software can also run on Kubernetes on the same cluster.”

OpenStack, in case you are not familiar with it, is another massive open-source project that helps enterprises manage their own data center software infrastructure. One of OpenStack’s biggest markets has long been the telco industry. There has always been a bit of friction between the two foundations, especially now that the OpenStack Foundation has opened up its organizations to projects that aren’t directly related to the core OpenStack projects.

I asked Kohn if he is explicitly positioning the CNCF/Kubernetes stack as an OpenStack competitor. “Yes, our view is that people should be running Kubernetes on bare metal and that there’s no need for a middle layer,” he said — and that’s something the CNCF has never stated quite as explicitly before but that was always playing in the background. He also acknowledged that some of this friction stems from the fact that the CNCF and the OpenStack foundation now compete for projects.

OpenStack Foundation, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree. “Pitting Kubernetes against OpenStack is extremely counterproductive and ignores the fact that OpenStack is already powering 5G networks, in many cases in combination with Kubernetes,” OpenStack COO Mark Collier told me. “It also reflects a lack of understanding about what OpenStack actually does, by suggesting that it’s simply a virtual machine orchestrator. That description is several years out of date. Moving away from VMs, which makes sense for many workloads, does not mean moving away from OpenStack, which manages bare metal, networking and authentication in these environments through the Ironic, Neutron and Keystone services.”

Similarly, ex-OpenStack Foundation board member (and Mirantis co-founder) Boris Renski told me that “just because containers can replace VMs, this doesn’t mean that Kubernetes replaces OpenStack. Kubernetes’ fundamental design assumes that something else is there that abstracts away low-level infrastructure, and is meant to be an application-aware container scheduler. OpenStack, on the other hand, is specifically designed to abstract away low-level infrastructure constructs like bare metal, storage, etc.”

This overall theme continued with Kohn and the CNCF taking a swipe at Kata Containers, the first project the OpenStack Foundation took on after it opened itself up to other projects. Kata Containers promises to offer a combination of the flexibility of containers with the additional security of traditional virtual machines.

“We’ve got this FUD out there around Kata and saying: telco’s will need to use Kata, a) because of the noisy neighbor problem and b) because of the security,” said Kohn. “First of all, that’s FUD and second, micro-VMs are a really interesting space.”

He believes it’s an interesting space for situations where you are running third-party code (think AWS Lambda running Firecracker) — but telcos don’t typically run that kind of code. He also argues that Kubernetes handles noisy neighbors just fine because you can constrain how many resources each container gets.

It seems both organizations have a fair argument here. On the one hand, Kubernetes may be able to handle some use cases better and provide higher throughput than OpenStack. On the other hand, OpenStack handles plenty of other use cases, too, and this is a very specific use case. What’s clear, though, is that there’s quite a bit of friction here, which is a shame.


Forward Networks nets $16M to help prevent network outages

 As IP networks continue to grow and become ever more complex, and people become ever more dependent on them staying up all the time, a startup that is building software tools to help administrators keep networks running has landed a round of funding. Forward Networks — a startup that only emerged from stealth last November and has built a platform aimed at service providers and… Read More

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