Cisco fleshes out software-defined networking model

The dream of a programmable network linked to applications — also called software-defined networking — has been promoted by almost every vendor that makes a data centre product.

Today Cisco Systems Inc. fleshed out its vision of that dream by announcing the first components of what it calls its application-centric infrastructure (ACI) that will unify and manage networking, storage, compute, network services, applications and security

In short, when all the components are released over the next nine months, IT departments will be able to assign policies to applications across physical and virtual networks that define everything associated with an app — security, load balancing, storage and compute.

The parts announced today are three of a new Nexus 9000-series of data centre switches, upgrades to the Nexus NX-OS operating system, and an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) that links networks to applications.

All were designed by Insieme Networks, an early stage company founded by former Cisco staffers that Cisco had a large stake in. Today it announced it has bought the rest to bring it in-house.

“We’re trying to bring rapid deployment of applications to our customers with scale, security and full (network) visibility,” Ish Limkakeng, Insieme’s vice-president said in an interview.

Unlike some SDN models, which put a software layer on top of the physical network, Cisco’s ACI is an integrated overlay that unites virtual and physical networks through the Nexus 9000 switches, he said, which create the network fabric. The APIC software controller, to be sold as an appliance on a Cisco UCS server, is used to set policies.

However, it won’t be on sale until the second quarter of next year.

The advantage of this type of SDN is a saving over software-only network virtualization, he said, staff saving through centralized policy management and faster time to deployment of applications.

Forrester Research networking analyst Andre Kindness said the announcement “reaffirms that software-defined networking is here to stay.”

Cisco’s vision isn’t new, he said: it’s similar to Hewlett-Packard’s virtualized application network, announced last year. However, he believes Cisco’s model is fuller.

“This is what customers have been asking for,” Kindness said, in the way of a fully-programmable, application-centric network.

Until Cisco comes out with more details, Kindness said, he isn’t sure how much of an organization’s existing infrastructure can be leveraged with ACI.

In the interview Limkakeng said through open source application programmable interfaces, ACI will link to most compute and storage hardware and software. Cisco said it has a large number of backers including Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Symatec, CA Technologies, F5 Networks, Oracle, EMC, VMware Red Hat, Citrix and others.

But Kindness also said there’s a problem: to automate functions SDN assumes an organization’s infrastructure polices and procedures have been standardized — for example using ITIL best practices. That, he added, will take time for IT departments to create.

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research, said Cisco’s architecture makes sense. It will appeal most to organizations that want to automate the provisioning of IT services, he said. “This is Cisco’s larger data centre play,” he added, “their first step to their stated goal of becoming the number one IT vendor.”

A lot of vendors tout SDN as a way of cutting the cost of buying network equipment. But, he added, networking gear generally is less than five per cent of data centre expenditure. On the other hand operations (people) are 40 per cent of the cost. Cisco, he believes, would argue the cost of its solution pays off in operational savings.

Actually Limkakeng said Cisco’s ACI solution saves “tens of millions of dollars” when an organizations upgrades to its 40G switch infrastructure.

Limkakeng said Cisco’s ACI approach complements and goes beyond its earlier announced ONE network environment for SDN.

ACI deals with the fact that only one-third of servers in many data centres are virtualized, he said, most companies use more than one hypervisor and many companies are using or want to use public and private clouds.

Cisco’s approach works with all hypervisors and cloud models for application agility, he said.

Because the 9000 series can see into both physical and virtual networks, Limkakeng said, it allows real-time visibility and troubleshooting — for example, it can see an application is having trouble at a particular point of the infrastructure.

To take advantage of ACI, organizations will need to buy a Nexus 9000 switch running the upgraded NX-OS in ACI mode and the APIC controller. (The controller enables the features needed on NX-OS.)

The first of the 9000-series announced are the 9508 switch, an eight-slot 13RU chassis for end of row and high performance 10/40GbE aggregation layer deployments; the 9396XP, a 960G switch with 48 fixed 10GE SFP+ ports and twelve 40 Gbps QSFP+ ports; and the 93128TX, a 1.28 TB swith with 96 fixed 1/10BASE-T ports and eight 40Gbps QSFP+ ports.

In the first half of 2014 four and 16-slot systems will be released as well as top of rack switches.

Cisco [Nasdaq: CSCO] says the controller can manage 1 million end points. Unlike traditional SDN controllers, it says, the APIC is independent of switch data and control planes.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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