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Cisco Asks the Killer SDN Question

Ray Le Maistre

Cisco's unveiling of its Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI) strategy and plans for its Insieme Networks "spin-in" has raised some core questions for all those interested in the software-defined networking (SDN) debate: Can, or even should, the theory of pure SDN be put into practice?

I won't go into the details of what Cisco Systems Inc. is doing -- my colleague Dan O'Shea has done an admirable job on that front already. (See Cisco's ACI Gets Physical With SDN.)

What is more interesting is whether Cisco's hardware-centric approach -- even if it is driven by an inevitable protectionist streak -- is the one that will, ultimately, make most sense for network operators. Because the debate really isn't about whether this is a SDN play or not. And it isn't just about whether Cisco is looking to lock customers into its technology, though of course that is a major issue and talking point.

The key debate is whether network decision-makers will weigh up their options and decide they are more happy with what Cisco has to offer compared with the alternatives. And this isn't a straightforward issue: Such decisions will be based on personal experiences, finances, skill sets, perceptions, prejudices, and all the other criteria that come into play when human beings (flawed, complex and often unpredictable as we all are) are involved. Only the other week I heard a senior executive from a major mobile operator say that he didn't care if the next-generation technology he was sourcing for his advanced 4G network was proprietary or not -- he just wants it to work.

So maybe the big question, then, is: Will the majority of network operators of any type (datacenter, wide area network, or both) bet their future on conformance to the emerging SDN specifications, standards, and models that are based on open source software and generic hardware?

Cisco, it seems, is betting that enough of them won't walk away from the IP giant with the sometimes intimidating reputation.

Of course, the Cisco pitch was always going to attract criticism. And given that Cisco has said its proposition will only work to optimum performance levels if its hardware (rather than any third-party gear) is deployed, it would be shocking if there wasn't some sort of outburst from the SDN community.

One of Cisco's main rivals, HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ), was pretty quick to issue a statement attacking the router giant's strategy. The "Insieme ACI poorly addresses market needs" because it is "incompatible and complex," claims HP. "ACI is incompatible with existing Nexus products, and ACI doesn't allow for inevitable migration or provide customer investment protection... Cisco is limiting customers' access to the benefits promised by SDN by locking them into a proprietary and Cisco-only architecture." It concludes that Cisco is "trying to defy the SDN movement with hardware-defined proprietary infrastructure."

Naturally, HP goes on to explain how its OpenFlow 1.3-enabled switches provide "the benefits promised by SDN now."

Here's an alternative, and more neutral, perspective from David Krozier, a telecom network infrastructure principal analyst at Ovum Ltd. .

    Cisco continues to promote the role of hardware in delivering future high performance networks and took great pains to distance itself from pure software-based overlay virtualized networks (like the Nicira technology VMware acquired, Junipers Contrail, and Alcatel-Lucent's Nuage) in the data center. Ovum notes that while the 9000 Series switches can operate standalone, the features provided by the APIC controller require Cisco hardware. While this may raise the hackles of those who believe future networks should be based on generic hardware platforms, this approach is unlikely to match the performance capabilities of ACI.

If you hear someone say "Better the devil you know" in networking circles in the coming months, those uttering that phrase might just be talking about Cisco's ACI.

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Beer
11/12/2013 | 3:40:19 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Insieme is a product of MPL - Mario, Prem and Luca. All are Cisco veterans. They were the principals at Crescendo (Catalyst switches), Nuova (Nexus switches) and others (MDS storage switching, UCS servers. All are exceptional engineers. And all understand that the amazing engine that makes Cisco successful - the sales team. Nobody sells networking boxes better than the Cisco sales team. Crescendo, Nuova and now Insieme provided the sam\les team with a box-based solution... meaning that hardware is a vessel that carries software. Products are essentially priced based upon the box, not the software in the box. Also consitent with the MPL experience is that they deliver better ASICs than their competitors... this carries the assumption that ASICs are required these days for forwarding performance, deep-packet inspection and other compute-intense packet operations. Arista (CEO is former colleague of MPL at Cisco) is betting against ASICs.

In either case, they are both box-based solutions... dependent upon a sales force that knows how to sell boxes. Because Cisco has a broader range of boxes (controller, switch, compute, security, etc), their sales force will have a better chance selling to enterprise and SPs - because of the "single throat to choke" axiom.

User Rank: Light Beer
11/11/2013 | 2:42:45 AM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs


- The control plane that you are speaking about 25+ year in development cycle already and it works.  The fact to posted message here proofs that distributed computation in scale of Internet works ok. If you move control plane from distributed to centralized point you network you still doing control plane , you still need to compute SPF etc  So argument is completely void in this context.

-Argument regarding a loop ... you can have a loop in SDN environment as well.

In normal layer 3 design you have many tools to avoid that and if you do have loops

it only because of bad design nothing to do with technology.

- Hard to troubleshoot ? so you are saying troubleshooting VM in the cloud and/or programmable interface in between is much easy ? did you troubleshoot 2000 line buggy phyton script ?  

There are many valide arguments around SDN architecture but definitly not those that you listed.


User Rank: Light Beer
11/9/2013 | 12:44:39 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Argument about "proven control plane" for standard decentralized IGP, MPLS control plane and others looks like point of last resort for the vendors like Cisco.

Old control plane proven to be:

- Complex to manage

- Able to create routing loops

- Hard to troubleshoot

- Always needs workarounds, trick and proprietary "improvements" making multivendor solution impossible and locking clients to only one "right choice".

I'm not even talking that traditional vendors like Cisco failed to create full blown EMS/NMS for all their products with good northbound interface.

Of course SDN is not ideal but it allows to break that vendor's jails created by tradional network suppliers and make clients more free in their choices and less dependend.

And for sure nothing comes for free and the price ISPs shall pay is to improve their own expertise and take network knowedge in their own hands. It is a business case to solve and prove.
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/8/2013 | 1:30:08 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
In the US some do, some don't, and many times the RFIs and RFPs may be coming out of different business units.  

NFV is different than SDN.  Running low-bandwidth, high-touch network services on COTS is going to happen.  It happened with VoIP and its related functions and signaling.  For many customers and services we are seeing servers support enough BW to take the place of firewalls and load balancers.   Cisco is embracing NFV, they announced the ASAv the same time as ACI and it's not dependent on ACI.  

Apart from controlling service chaining, the higher speed aggregation and core networks is where SDN comes into play.   At this point Cisco basically re-invented Juniper's QFabric architecture although using an open standard as the switch to switch tunneling mechanism in VXLAN (which came from VMWare/Ncira NSX software overlays they disparage in their ACI presentations) instead of something wholly proprietary.     

The Insieme piece is really being able to communicate application-level data from the switches to the controller so the controller can make intelligent decisions.  The controller has to know where applications live on the network so it's important the provisioning steps run through it. They are using the IS-IS IGP protocol to communicate topology information, so in the end the switches are still running a distributed IP control plane.   I'm not sure how the ACI controller creates static paths across the fabric, VXLAN runs at Layer3 so maybe static routes?  :)    

 The reality is in the leaf/spine datacenter architecture the whole setup is supposed to be non-blocking with 1 hop between endpoints in a single-tier setup.   There is nowhere to reroute traffic... So really the intelligence is in where applications are provisioned and where they are moved when congestion occurs.   Will be interesting to see how everything plays out.

I will agree with Cisco using a "baremetal" switch with a light control plane doesn't really save any money.   The reality is Arista, Juniper, and Cisco just came out with switches using the same merchant silicon as the "baremetal" switches and they aren't that much more expensive.   Customers don't want unproven control plane running their network.  

User Rank: Light Sabre
11/8/2013 | 1:09:12 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Luis, excellent post. However, I believe if you look at other regions such as North America and Europe, the telco's do have the technical skills to not only ask the right questions, but also write the RFIs that define the requirements on a more granular level.

Luiz Lourenco
Luiz Lourenco,
User Rank: Lightning
11/8/2013 | 12:48:05 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Ray, your question "even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions?" is right to the point! At least in the context of Latin America, where I live, I'm not aware of any operator who has invested heavily on technical training and high level knowledge aquisition, management and sharing for their employees. All carriers have traditionally depended on the vendors to design, implement and, sometimes, even manage their networks, proposing solutions, planning expansions, etc. Cisco has a clear advantage in this context.

This is critical at this moment when such fundamental decisions must be made about the future of their plants. Working for one of the top telecom vendors in the world, I see everyday the many difficulties and doubts my customers have about what technology to choose and more often than not they come to us to ask for help and advice. Of course the same happens with other vendors and the result is that the operators' networks are a battle field where each manufacturer tries to impose their visions and approaches always aiming at defending and increasing their market share.

Like many other technology standards wars we have seen in the past, the winner will hardly be the best technical solution but the most feasible business model and far away from the one-size-fits-all approach, what may lead to several different implementations - vendor-specific, purely open and hybrid - on a case-by-case basis. At the end what matters is that all networks and devices shall integrate and interact seamlessly, at the lowest possible cost. Better the devil you know?
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/8/2013 | 10:38:11 AM
A question of balance
It seems to me a question about finding the right balance between network functions running on generic servers versus purpose-built network appliances. That balance will shift to servers as generic processor technology is enhanced with hardware-based acceleration for networking functions, and it will shift faster in the control and management plane than in the data plane.

It'll take time to prove out the various use cases and see where it will make business sense. With network appliances the cost of the software is mostly subsidized by the hardware, which may make appliances seem more expensive than generic server hardware. But if you unbundle the software that gap may actually be a lot smaller than you'd think, and it will require additional integration and validation to fit in a custom environment.

At the end of the day you still need to have something that is reliable, can be reproduced at a large scale and is cost competitive with alternatives.
User Rank: Blogger
11/7/2013 | 7:59:55 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Well, I think 2012 was the year the operators said "enough is enough", 2013 is the year in which they have said "yeah, right, enough is enough, but we need to figure out what enough is" and 2014 will be the year in which they will suggest what enough is and then see which financial model fits best with the money the CFO gives them. because there's always the financial criterion, right?

For sure, things have changed and the pendulum has, at least temporarily, swung in favor of carrier-power. But do they have the wherewithall to do anything about it? That SDN/NFV might not be the silver bullet some think is already recognised by those involved in the ETSI NFV group, and has been from day 1.

SO the other big question is -- even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions? 

For me, this all boils down to whether the operators understand how the potential new networks might work. And if they're not confidnet in that, then it'll be a case of 'better the devil you know'...
User Rank: Blogger
11/7/2013 | 7:55:52 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs
Well, I think 2012 was the year the operators said "enough is enough", 2013 is the year in which they have said "yeah, right, enough is enough, but we need to figure out what enough is" and 2014 will be the year in which they will suggest what enough is and then see which financial model fits best with the money the CFO gives them. because there's always the financial criterion, right?

For sure, things have changed and the pendulum has, at least temporarily, swung in favor of carrier-power. But do they have the wherewithall to do anything about it? That SDN/NFV might not be the silver bullet some think is already recognised by those involved in the ETSI NFV group, and has been from day 1.

SO the other big question is -- even if SDN and NFV and open source is the answer, do the network operators have the know-how to ask all the right questions? 

For me, this all boils down to whether the operators understand how the potential new networks might work. And if they're not confidnet in that, then it'll be a case of 'better the devil you know'...
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/7/2013 | 2:49:40 PM
Re: This reminds me of IMS and SBCs

Agreed. I think one day we will look back at 2013 as the year operators decided enough is enough and they needed to create the template for how they will evolve their networks.

And I think because of that, openness will be critical. The stakes are high for the incumbent vendors since I don't think the largest operators will continue to accept the trusty proprietary/ semi-open / premium model, when there a lots of other vendors willing to deliver lower cost open solutions. It only takes one large operator to prove this later model will work to open the floodgates.

It's not a great model for the vendors who are trying to balance customer demands with shareholder expectations, but it is for the operators, if they play their cards right.
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