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