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Cisco rolls dice with 'CONTROL EVERYTHING' softy networking launch

Either a gratuitious lock-in, or reasonable technical strategy

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Analysis Cisco has revealed its response to the piranha-like software-defined networking technology that threatens to devour its margins and reduce the worth of its proprietary hardware.

The "Application Centric Infrastructure" (ACI) technology was belched out by the company at a press event in New York on Wednesday. It sees the world's largest networking firm couple self-designed software to a new range of switches to offer admins greater control over networks, as long as they don't dare switching their hardware vendor.

ACI lets Cisco gain many of the capabilities of "software-defined networking" technology, and defend its main hardware business by coupling functionality to Cisco's purpose-built chips in a new "Nexus 9000" switch.

ACI has a set of north and southbound APIs for admins wishing to configure layer 4 to 7 services, virtual network infrastructure, monitoring, management, and orchestration services.

It has API compatibility with the networking components of OpenStack, Open vSwitch, and Open Daylight via its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) component. This means admins can run a variety of different networking control stacks on top of their Cisco kit.

Despite Cisco's history of looking down on network overlays, ACI uses the VXLAN encapsulation protocol on its internal communications.

ACI's main commercial target is VMware's "NSX" networking, which is a proprietary all-software control layer. The difference is that although VMware doesn't lock you into underlying hardware, it does lock you into designing your network for VMware's flavor of network virtualization. ACI, on the other hand, locks you into Cisco hardware but gives you choice at the software control layer.

It's a subtle distinction, but has a big effect on sysadmins as they're far more likely to want to regularly test out new software than constantly bring in new dumb switches for evaluation.

Let's get back to ASICs

Cisco believes that by using application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) in its Nexus 9000 switch, it can better deal with the bandwidth and processing demands that fast (read: 40GbE and up) networks may place on purely software-driven network layers. The combination of ASICs and merchant silicon can provide VXLAN bridging and management on the same switch as well, which is both a handy feature and an admission by Cisco that though it has blustered against VXLANS in the past, it secretly quite likes them.

Some other features that the Cisco Nexus 9000 switches will grant admins include the ability to choose between Cisco's standard NX-OS, and a more refined version which includes policy controls.

Some companies partnering with Cisco on the tech include NetApp, Red Hat, Microsoft, VMware, and automation specialist Puppet.

VMware is sure to be sour about the launch because – besides going directly against its NSX product: the company is part of Cisco's "Virtual Computing Environment" group, which blends EMC storage, Cisco servers and networking, and VMware virtualization into appliances. Though both Cisco and VMware could offer SDN in VCE, there can only be one winner, and that's Cisco – sorry, VMware!

Taking a leaf out of Oracle's book

Cisco's strategy with ACI is roughly analogous to the approach taken by Oracle with its hardware business, which has been in decline for several quarters.

Like Oracle, Cisco is threatened by the rise of open, commodity hardware running software systems and, just like Oracle, its answer is to develop something with the capabilities of more open solutions, but which also supports the company's hardware division.

What sets Cisco apart from Oracle is that there are real technical challenges in a purely software driven network, whereas many can argue that Oracle's coupling of database to hardware is merely gratuitous margin defending.

As more and more companies contemplate using cut-price switches from the likes of Asian assembly lines like Wiwynn and Quanta, or Facebook via its Open Compute Project scheme, the onus is on Cisco to show that its proprietary hardware can match cut-price gear and software for SDN infrastructure.

"Maybe we are doing hardware-defined networking... but if I can put that same box with better performance and better programmability in your data center, cheaper than a white box out of Taiwan, do you care?" asked Insieme's Joe Onisick on our Speaking In Tech podcast earlier today.

The ACI components of Cisco's grand SDN plan will be available in mid-2014. ®

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