Plexxi, With $28M in Tow, Looks to Transform Networking for Data Centers

Plexxi sounds like it might be a materials company. It’s not. But its name evokes the notions of flexibility and transparency.

Until today, Plexxi wasn’t saying anything about what it is or isn’t. The Nashua, NH-based startup, which also has an office in Cambridge, MA, took $28.5 million in funding from Matrix Partners, North Bridge Venture Partners, and Lightspeed Venture Partners over the past couple of years, and disappeared into the night.

What it has been working on is of importance to anyone who cares about modern data centers, or, for that matter, about the future of big networking companies like Cisco Systems. Because Plexxi is trying to reinvent networking technology for current and future data centers—big incumbents, take notice.

Plexxi is led by founders Dave Husak, formerly of Reva Systems, and Ephraim Dobbins, formerly at Acme Packet. I recently caught up with their co-founder Mat Mathews (previously with Arbor Networks), who serves as Plexxi’s vice president of product management.

The news is that Plexxi is starting beta trials of its technology with business customers in industries ranging from finance to cloud services. The problem is as follows: Most data centers were built and hooked up with very different workloads and applications in mind than what they are used for today. As a result, Mathews says, “the network is fundamentally disconnected from the applications it’s serving.” That’s IT-speak for “your data center is hemorrhaging money and efficiency because its technology is 10 years old.”

Plexxi calls its approach “affinity networking”—the ability to understand what kinds of applications are running in data centers, and also how to fit them to a network more efficiently. Instead of trying to improve networks with just software, say, or commoditize IT resources so data centers can run a little more cheaply, Plexxi is trying to build a new kind of physical network, plus new software that makes “simplifying assumptions” for today’s data centers, says Mathews. “At a data center, we can start at the top. We have the answers and the data. We can tell the network exactly what it should do.”

Mathews says Plexxi has made progress in taking optical networking technology from the telecom industry—which has traditionally been expensive—and applying it to data centers more cost-effectively. On top of that, Plexxi takes a “software-defined networking” approach that is relatively new to commercial networks, and involves using software to control how network switches and routers handle data traffic. The end result (if Plexxi does it right): the kind of flexibility that businesses expect from cloud computing and storage, but in the networking realm.

It’s still very early days for Plexxi, but the company already has about 30 employees and is growing very quickly, Mathews says. “We’re at the very front end of our go-to-market.”

Companies like Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Juniper Networks would be wise to keep an eye on this emerging sector.

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