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 enterprises to analyse their networks, identify problems that cause network outages and start fixing them — has picked up $16 million.

Co-founded by four Stanford PhD’s who had done on other groundbreaking work in networking technologies, including pioneering efforts in software-defined networking (SDN), Forward Networks will use the funding to hire more engineers and expand its product features, said David Erickson, one of those four co-founders who is also the startup’s CEO (the other three co-founders are Nikhil Handigol, Brandon Heller and Peyman Kazemian).

Its latest release, as it happens, is also being launched today in beta: Forward Essentials, a freemium product that lets network operators quickly access network state (the first step in identifying and repairing faults). It’s also adding support for VMware vSphere virtual networking on ESXi hosts to its list of supported networks.

This Series B round was led by DFJ, with participation from previous investors Andreessen Horowitz and A.Capital Ventures (the early stage fund that Ronny Conway left A16Z to create).

Many of us remember the days of Twitter that were punctuated by the “fail whale” whenever the network went down. Today, Twitter’s network is a lot more robust, but that issue underscores a persistent problem in the digital world: network outages happen, and the reasons why are growing by the day.

“David and his team have built a truly game-changing platform” said Andreas Stavropoulos, partner at DFJ, in a statement. “Modern enterprise networks are larger, more diverse and more fragile than ever before. Forward has taken a critical and significant step forward in how organizations manage their networks.”

At the same time, our reliance on networks continuing to stay up has grown massively: in business environments we need networks to be up to do any work at all, and in more consumer environments, we now use digital networks to run services in our house, to communicate and more.

The issue is that within the networking industry, most of products used to maintain networks are decades old and out of date.

“In the last 20 years, the rate of complexity in network size, the number of protocols, the vendors [whose kit is in the network], and how all of those layer have all been increasing at nearly an exponential rate,” noted Erickson in an interview. “But the dollars into the operations space to continue to manage these has been nearly nonexistent. There has been a big pinch.”

A lot of the responsibility for having everything work smoothly and avoiding outages falls to network operations teams, who take in tickets and issue fixes. They often use their own tools and legacy services like traceroutes to identify where traffic is going and where it’s coming from. But this process can be slow, and expensive, and not comprehensive enough. “The metric we use at Forward to figure out how effective we are is ‘how much time and money can we save everyone in the operations and security teams in their jobs?” Erickson said. “How many outages have there been and can we reduce the mean time to repair, or prevent them altogether?”

The idea behind what Forward Networks does is reminiscent of the application of big data that we are seeing in other parts of the tech world, this time applied specifically to networks: it identifies the myriad protocols, nodes, and systems that have been woven together in one complex network; it then creates maps of those networks, and builds behavioral models for how they work.

“We then automate a huge amount of the work that goes into information collection and analysis, using mathematical algorithms that we built while still at Stanford,” Erickson said.

As you would expect, the company is not able to reveal a full list of its customers, but it notes a couple of biggies that point to what kinds of businesses are using it: DXC, the HP Enterprise and CSC merged IT services leviathan; and Telstra, the Australian incumbent telco.

Forward Networks is working in a fairly new area of the networking world — Erickson acknowledged to me when I asked about it that it can be a hard sell to some companies as a result, since it’s presenting a new product and solution that network operators have essentially been making do without for decades at this point.

But nonetheless, it’s an important area, and as a mark of how it may be heating up, there is another startup emerging that is a close competitor. Veriflow, also founded by university networking PhD’s, last year also announced its own raise of $11 million from an equally impressive set of backers: Menlo Ventures and NEA.

Still, the investors in Forward believe that they’re betting on a strong horse, and that the field in any case is still wide open, with large enterprises, on average, experiencing at least five outages per month at a cost of $740,000 for each outage, according to Bill Krause, who is a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz.

“We are very pleased to witness Forward Networks’ accomplishments. Three years ago we invested in the company because of the strength of the team, the differentiating technology, and the long-term vision of the company,” said Krause in a statment. “The company’s execution, vision and intense commitment to its customers is further proof that this was a smart investment.”

“I am delighted to be part of the continued success of Forward Networks”, said Ronny Conway, founder and general partner at A.Capital, in a statement. “We saw the company’s potential and believed in their vision at an early stage. I am excited to see the next phase of the company’s growth that this new round of funding will accelerate”.

Today’s Series B brings the total funding for Forward Networks to $27 million. The company is not disclosing its valuation with this round.