Light Reading

Cisco's ACI Gets Physical With SDN

Dan O'Shea

Now that Cisco Systems has unveiled its much-anticipated Application-Centric Infrastructure and set plans to acquire the part of ACI developer and Cisco "spin-in" Insieme Networks that it doesn’t already own, what should we make of all this? Is Cisco circling the wagons in an attempt to fend off the software-defined networking (SDN) savages for as long as possible, or is it setting a new standard for next-generation datacenter infrastructures?

Those wanting definitive answers may have to wait a little longer, as some aspects of the ACI portfolio will not be available until well into 2014. For those waiting on SDN investments to see what Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has to offer, the company is now addressing the SDN movement with a strategy that is unmistakably hardware-based, with some software elements that won't be available until the second half of 2014. That gives Cisco critics even more basis to charge that Cisco is still more interested in protecting its own market position than in joining the revolution around SDN and virtualization in the datacenter.

Yet ACI also is focused on treating applications more individually, based on their own requirements for bandwidth, security, and other resources. Though the idea of application-based networking is nothing new, Cisco appears to be making a real attempt to free applications from physical location and infrastructure restraints to create a new model for application networking within the datacenter and among multiple datacenters.

ACI is a hybrid physical and virtual strategy consisting of the Nexus 9000 family of switches and an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller that centralizes and automates policy management for the Nexus 9000 fabric. It is capable of managing up to 1 million endpoints.

"There is an obvious need to support a heterogeneous environment of physical and virtual network resources," says Ish Limkakeng, vice president, Insieme Networks, backing up the comment with study results showing that only 21 percent of physical datacenter servers will be virtualized by 2016.

The APIC also relies on application network profiles that define the unique requirements of each application and its interdependencies with various network infrastructure resources.

"With the APIC, we're decoupling application and policy from network infrastructure," Limkakeng says. "In doing that, the APIC works apart and independently from the typical switch control and data planes."

In a nod to openness, Cisco's Nexus 9000 switches can work with commercially available silicon and open SDN controllers. However, and not surprisingly, Limkakeng says customers will not get the full benefits of the ACI fabric and the APIC if they go that route instead of using Cisco silicon and the APIC. Those benefits include Cisco's claim of up to 75 percent total cost of ownership saving over fabrics using merchant silicon or software-only virtualization solutions. Also, ACI has Cisco's own version of investment protection: The APIC can be used with the vendor's Nexus 7000 switches, with its current NX operating system transitional to ACI.

Cisco claims the openness tag by supporting RESTful APIs and extensions to OpenDaylight, OpenStack, virtual switches, and VXLANs. The vendor also announced a broad ecosystem of vendor partners supporting ACI, including BMC, CA Technologies, Citrix, EMC, Embrane, Emulex, F5, IBM, Microsoft, NetApp, Panduit, Puppet Labs, NIKSUN, OpsCode, Red Hat, SAP, Splunk, Symantec, VCE, and VMware.

This week's announcement brings to an end more than a year and a half of speculation about Insieme Networks and its take on datacenter infrastructure. Going back to early 2012, Cisco has already invested $135 million in Insieme, and it announced plans this week to fully acquire the small firm staffed with ex-Cisco folks at an ultimate value of $863 million. First billed as an SDN venture by industry observers, Cisco has made clear in recent months that Insieme's mission is more about re-vamping datacenter infrastructure to be more application-focused. (See Cisco Outlines an SDN Plan, Cisco Drops Hints About Insieme & SDN, Cisco's Insieme Doesn't Like Your SDN Model, and Insieme Is Imminent.)

— Dan O'Shea, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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User Rank: Blogger
11/11/2013 | 10:55:32 PM
Re: The Open/Closed Paradox
The market leader, whoever it is, Cisco or otherwise, is never going to play the open systems game until customers force them to through their own actions. The thing is that what Cisco is preaching has worked for them before, just as it has worked for market leaders in other segments.
Luiz Lourenco
Luiz Lourenco,
User Rank: Lightning
11/7/2013 | 12:51:51 PM
The Open/Closed Paradox
I watched the whole presentation yesterday and it was clear from the beginning that Cisco is building a paralel business and technical context to compete with SDN and NFV open standards and implementations and protect their market. ACI will be great and wonderful since we use Nexus 9000 switches deployed together with APIC and all the software environment that shall be created in the coming months. Any surprise? Of course not.

To make sure this initiative will have full market support Cisco invited long-time friends and foes to come together and develop the required aplications and software ecosystem. This artificial symbiosis among so many different vendors is supposed to help them leverage their own products and solutions while supporting Cisco in its war against the inescapable: the open standards will rule! CAPEX and OPEX have skyrocketed in the last decade because of the exponential growth of internet and mobile users and carriers cannot put up with this continuos, enormous and increasing investment in their businesses. Many of them are deeply indebted and making sharp moves to try and recover from serious financial problems. This is the perfect time for the open initiatives to take their place in the market and help operators relieve the pressure over their budgets. Cisco is clearly on the opposite direction with an amazing speech: you will strongly reduce your TCO as long as you stick with our end-to-end ACI solutions. A paradox in itself.
User Rank: Blogger
11/6/2013 | 4:54:41 PM
Re: What happens next...
That is pretty much what they are saying, which I guess is what everyone has been expecting their position to be, so maybe few surprises here. I think the Application Network Profile and how it's being used is interesting--wondering if other companies are doing something similar by different names, or if it is unique (Note to self: Look into that.)

There are definitely a lot of partners backing Cisco on this, and it's obviously going to have a bigger ecosystem than anyone else. Competitors like Juniper and Arista are building up their own ecosystems at the same time.
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/6/2013 | 4:47:12 PM
Re: The Cisco way
You'll notice in all the material Cisco put out "SDN" isn't mentioned for a reason.   

APIC is an infrastructure orchestration platform driven by application need, and is not tied to just networking.  Apparently APIC will work with existing orchestration platforms which manage their own little piece of the puzzle and use open standards to do so, which could include SDN.  So if you want to use APIC with OpenDaylight to program your switches using OpenFlow, it can do so.   I really try to divorce the terms "network automation" versus "SDN", network automation has been around for many many years.  The devices and extensions to NX-OS are all about bringing server automation tools like Puppet, Chef, Python scripting, XMPP, Linux containers, etc.  to the switches.   The DevOps movement standardizes and automates infrastructure so when an application needs to be launched no infrastructure guys are involved.  That's the goal with APIC what they have included in the switch gear.   The goal is also to be able to just plug in more switches and have them brought into the network seamlessly with really no human interaction.  

My guess is with the actual Insieme ASIC piece they will get more insight into granular application flow through the network and correlate the data through APIC.   Whether they then gain some ability to program flow paths through the network (true SDN) remains to e seen.  

I've seen some comparison to VMWare NSX (or Junos Contrail) and it's really apples and oranges.   Those are network overlay technologies, Cisco is supporting NSX by including VXLAN VTEP/GW functionality in the switches (part of the Trident 2).   If people want to run network tunnels between hypervisors there isn't much Cisco can do about it, they don't have a play in that arena.  
User Rank: Blogger
11/6/2013 | 4:47:00 PM
Re: The Cisco way
Even though it is being called a controller, I think it's a little closer to an overlay, if we're going to use SDN terms--which Cisco won't, by the way. I feel like Cisco is trying to say, yes, SDN is over there and that's interesting, but let's talk about applications.
sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
11/6/2013 | 4:38:00 PM
What happens next...
Given its market position, Cisco seems have laid down a challenge for the industry, saying you can do things our way with APIC or go the open route and take your chances because you're not then going to have all the capabilities of the APIC. Not entirely unexpected. What's more than a little scary for competitors is the number of customer or prospective customer endorsements Cisco has received for its solution.
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
11/6/2013 | 2:25:13 PM
The Cisco way
So is the APIC Cisco's version of an SDN controller? Are they developing a separate version of SDN? It's not clear to me how this fits into the broader industry trend. 
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