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Cisco untroubled by mega-clouds fleeing its proprietary ASIC grip

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Networking giant Cisco is facing the same onrush of terrifying low-cost competitors that server vendors and chipmakers are dealing with, and is now trying to convince the world that its tech is more open and interoperable than people think.

The new marketing approach has come about as the networking company prepares to sell its answer to software-defined networking – a technology that threatens to depress its margins, and make it easier for its customers to mix and match hardware and software from a variety of vendors to lower prices and gain control.

To deal with this problem Cisco has bought a spin-in company founded by Cisco employees named Insieme to give it software-defined networking capabilities, though the company's marketing types insist on terming this tech "Application Centric Infrastructure".

Cisco claimed earlier this month that the decoupling of network software from hardware was a bad thing for buyers both from a serviceability and from a technology perspective.

The SDN tech sees Cisco pair a new range of switching gear with a proprietary "Insieme" application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and revamped network "NX-OS" or ACI-based policy controller that, it says, should blow the doors off white boxes running a separate OS and general merchant silicon.

Coincidentally, this happens to be the exact strategy needed to shore up Cisco's business model by allowing it to offer software-defined networking, while maintaining a firm grip on clients via the use of an integrated software and hardware product. But Cisco argues there are genuine benefits to be found in using its own ASICs.

Driving me (to) Insieme

The company's approach has generated a vigorous debate among industry commentators, and came at a time when mega customers like Google, Amazon, and Facebook are doing everything they can to break free of Cisco's proprietary technologies, whether by designing their own networking gear or - as Facebook is doing - forming a cross-industry scheme to build open switches.

So, what exactly is going on?

With its new SDN tech Cisco will use a mix of SDN hardware from pure merchant silicon – generally available ASICs with well-documented features – to merchant silicon plus some proprietary stuff, to fully proprietary Insieme ASICs with greater technical features. This may help it retain high-end megacloud customers.

"I don't tell a customer I would encourage you to buy one or the other," says Insieme senior vice president Soni Jiandani. "We are not sitting here and telling our sales force 'if you sell more line cards with our silicon I will compensate you differently to this line card which has merchant only'."

From what we understand this helps it sell the comparatively open merchant silicon to people like Facebook at a knock-down price, and the more proprietary stuff to smaller firms which lack the expertise needed to take control of their full networking stack. Its merchant-silicon-based gear has better 15 percent better power densities and 20 percent more non-blocking density than the competition, Jiandani said.

The proprietary ASICs, meanwhile, will let the company provide better real-time data on network performance through a tech named "Atomic Counters", sophisticated layers four through seven services, and snappy policy control through use of proprietary ASIC tech. It should also be able to scale to greater endpoints than commercially available solutions, and provide a converged interface for managing both physical and virtual networks.

We would point out that there are technologies available that make it simple for overlays to hook into and control a variety of physical networks such as Cumulus Networks ONIE technology. When we mentioned this, Frank D'Costa - a marketing type with Cisco - said: "What's being ... pushed in industry is a very-limited and narrow set of interfaces".

Cisco is due to launch its SDN proprietary ASIC in April 2014, so by the end of the year it should be possible to divine how well this approach has worked.

Though the popular view is that Cisco's proprietary gear will be inherently more expensive, Jiandani disputes this, noting that Cisco-only line cards have "one third less components than merchant only alternatives. When I have so few components it is not only highly reliable, it is damn cheap to make," she contended.

This echoes claims made by Insieme employee Joe Onisick:

"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?"

What is becoming clear, though, is that just as Intel has acknowledged the death of Wintel and woken up to the multi-device, multi-OS world, and server vendors like HP and Dell are beginning to churn out designs reminiscent of the low-cost ODM white box servers, Cisco too is being forced to relinquish some control in exchange for retaining share in a turbulent market. ®

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