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Cisco Ships Its SDN Architecture -- Almost

Mitch Wagner

After talking it up since November 2013, Cisco is this week set to ship its version of SDN, the Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) announced ACI late last year as its response to the growing SDN movement, which, although still in its infancy, represents an existential threat to Cisco's business model due to its inherent reliance on white box switches. (See Cisco's ACI Gets Physical With SDN.)

ACI is Cisco's take on SDN. So what exactly is it? Thomas Schiebe, Cisco director of product management, reviewed ACI's components for Light Reading.

The first part of ACI is the Network Profile. Network Profiles are network configuration templates for applications and other workloads, as well as groups, security rules, and infrastructure. Using Profiles, the network is configured around behavior, rather than set rules created around the equipment's capabilities. It's a DevOps way of looking at the network, Schiebe says.

The second component is the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), which is a database for profiles. Unlike an OpenFlow controller, the APIC doesn't control the switch directly; rather, it pushes policies out to switches, which control themselves. The APIC describes desired results, which the switch produces by controlling its own behavior.

The third component is the equipment: Nexus switches and other devices, as well as appliances such as firewalls and load balancers that are managed through the APIC.

So is ACI really part of the SDN revolution? Yes, says Schiebe. "SDN is an amorphous term. To me, SDN means 'software-defined,' not 'software-only.' We need to get away from box-by-box configuration to policy-defined configuration," he says.

And now ACI is available -- almost. Customers have been able to order ACI components since July 1, and they're scheduled to ship Thursday.

The APIC is available as software running on a Cisco UCS C-Series x86 rack server. Cisco decided to ship the software as an appliance to guarantee a good out-of-box experience, testing all dependencies and simplifying deployments, Schiebe says.

Cisco also offers fixed and modular spine switches, the Nexus 9446PQ and 9509, for up to 288 ports and 40 GBit/s per chassis, that support ACI.

And Cisco is offering several Nexus 9300-series leaf and top-of-rack switches, shipping since March, now available with ACI software in addition to the vendor's operating system, IOS.

Hardware pricing is the same for ACI as it is for IOS. Software licensing is per leaf switch, no matter what kind or number of servers the customer has attached to each switch. Cisco wants to avoid pricing uncertainty for customers with multiple virtual machines or other usage-based models. "We made pricing predictable and attractive so customers don't have to get scared about SDN pricing or traffic pricing," Schiebe says.

Pricing is $250,000 for a starter bundle with everything needed to set up a small fabric.

Get the lowdown on SDN at Light Reading's dedicated SDN content channel.

Cisco anticipates several use cases for the starter bundle: Some users will want a proof-of-concept or lab deployment. Others will use the bundle for a converged infrastructure, connecting the fabric to racks of pooled storage and compute. With ACI, users can power an entire data center, albeit a small one. And users can use the starter kit to extend ACI policy management to an existing infrastructure, to gradually make the transition to ACI,

Pure-play SDN advocates may well disagree with Cisco's claim that ACI is SDN. Companies including Big Switch Networks , Cumulus, and Pica8 Inc. are founded on running OpenFlow controllers on commodity hardware. That's also the basis of the networking strategies espoused by HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ), VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW), and Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL). (See The Three Faces of SDN, Cisco & VMware Are Apple & Google of SDN, Big Switch Intros Flagship Big Cloud Fabric – At Last, HP Debuts SDN Management Software, Switches, and Open Season: Dell Taps Into Big Switch.)

Cisco is betting that it can deliver customers all the benefits of SDN without divorcing carriers and enterprises from Cisco's proprietary hardware. And Cisco has so much market share and momentum that it can succeed, so long as it maintains a high level of product and service quality. (See Cisco Asks the Killer SDN Question.)

In other words, Cisco could well win this bet as long as it doesn't screw up.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to wagner@lightreading.com.

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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/30/2014 | 5:29:13 PM
Re: Same old, same old
With the products due to ship tomorrow, I don't think there's much wiggle room. 
User Rank: Blogger
7/30/2014 | 4:56:07 PM
Re: Same old, same old
If they ship it one time, that helps, too. I think there were some folks out there betting that after annoucement last fall, Cisco was going to change its plans or push out its schedule, but no such luck.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
7/29/2014 | 9:03:23 PM
Re: Same old, same old
Cisco is betting that customers will value Cisco more than they want to separate the control and forwarding plane. It's a good bet. 
User Rank: Light Beer
7/29/2014 | 9:00:25 PM
Re: Same old, same old
There is no separation of control/ forwarding plane - both are on the switch. The APIC pushes policies (network profiles) to the switch and translation into concrete configs for switch control/forwarding plane happens locally. A declarative model.

One of the big boys (Google) is using the same approach for Container VMs in GCE.

User Rank: Light Sabre
7/29/2014 | 6:55:28 PM
Re: Same Old, Same Old
@sammasud, it certainly offers an "inhibited" SDN at a minimum.  I fully agree, it is a self-serving version.  But, as you and Mitch comment, they probably have the market standing to pull their version off as long as they provide excellent service.

There is, however, the opportunity for someone to truly develop SDN solutions that demonstrate the full capabilities that Cisco is not using.  It will be interesting to watch.
sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
7/29/2014 | 4:50:47 PM
Same old, same old
If APIC pushes polices out to the switches, then it seems to me this is not a separation of the control/forwarding planes. Seems like while the big boys, Facebook, Amazon, etc., have one vision for building networks, Cisco's response is to continue protecting its turf the old-fashioned way. Cisco has the money and time to get on the bandwagon, but old habits are proving hard to break.

Still, it won't matter whether Cisco fully embraces SDN--provided it can offer a solution that has better capex/opex than what SDN promises to deliver.

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