Cisco, ACI, SDN, and the Commodity Networking Challenge

Commodity or proprietary? Enterprise executives have been asking themselves this question for decades, but it’s recently taken on greater urgency.

With software defined networking poised to usher in a new era of fully virtualized, end-to-end data infrastructure – the software defined data center (SDDC) – many wonder whether they can achieve the flexibility needed to handle this emerging architecture by layering advanced software management on top of white box hardware. If it works as promised, such a scheme would allow faster, more extensive scalability at lower cost to deploy and operate.

Naturally, the people who make and sell proprietary hardware disagree. Cisco is the name most synonymous with physical network infrastructure (and, arguably, with expensive proprietary hardware lock-in), but Juniper, Brocade and others face the same challenge. At this week’s Cisco Live event in San Francisco, CEO John Chambers warned of a coming consolidation in the networking industry, and that only those who could demonstrate a truly unique approach to SDN would come out on top.

How Cisco’s InterCloud uses OpenStack to optimize SDN on ACI

For Cisco, this means tight integration between its ACI platform and proprietary switches like the Nexus 9000. As the company’s John Woolwine explained to ENP back in February, the deeper the software layer can peer into underlying infrastructure, the more flexible and adaptable the overall data environment will be. The endgame for Cisco, it seems, is a fully automated, highly intelligent network architecture that can configure and reconfigure itself using predictive analytics and other “self-learning” capabilities.

In a nod to reality, however, Cisco recognizes that much of the wider data ecosystem, particularly web-scale cloud infrastructure, is being built on commodity hardware using open API formats like OpenStack and Eucalyptus. This is where the InterCloud comes in. The platform is not only integrated with the ACI stack to provide the broad programmability described above but also features a new InterCloud Fabric technology that incorporatesOpenStack. This gives Cisco the ability to provide optimal SDN service on its proprietary infrastructure while still capitalizing on the scalability and collective resource capabilities of diverse cloud ecosystems.

Early signs are strong for commodity SDN infrastructure

Will this be enough to keep Cisco atop the data networking industry? Frankly, it’s a toss-up at this point. Full SDN implementation is still some years away for the bulk of the enterprise community. The threat that commodity infrastructure poses to proprietary systems, however, is present today. As Datacenter Knowledge‘s Yevgeniy Sverdlik points out, high-end switch and router sales have been in a slump lately. This has extended to lackluster support for mobile and access layer products. And with ODM (original design manufacturer) platforms like Facebook’s Open Compute Project turning their attention from servers and storage to networking, momentum for commodity infrastructure could take off in the coming decade.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that when it comes to open vs. closed, commodity vs. proprietary, the enterprise infrastructure market is not a zero-sum game. Every win for a commodity solution is not necessarily a loss for Cisco. Scale-out infrastructure, particularly those earmarked for cloud services, will probably take to commodity infrastructure, while high-value functions in the data center would benefit from a more hands-on approach.

The challenge for Cisco, then, is twofold: first, demonstrate that commodity systems are not always the better value over the entire network lifecycle, and secondly, make sure that its proprietary systems do, in fact, deliver key advantages that cannot be achieved by open platforms.

If these two pieces do not fall into place, Cisco could be looking at a very rough decade ahead.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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