Networking Vendors Respond to Cisco ACI

Cisco’s announcement last week of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), which the networking giant has been developing through its spin-out Insieme, made waves in the networking world. Of particular note is Cisco’s assertion that software defined networking (SDN) is not enough, according to Cisco VP Ish Limkakeng, who spoke to Enterprise Networking Planet‘s Sean Michael Kerner about the vendor’s ACI vision and strategy.

Crucial to Cisco’s vision is the belief that applications are the most critical component of any data center and should drive the infrastructure. Crucial to Cisco’s strategy, meanwhile, is…Cisco hardware. Namely, the new ACI-optimized Nexus 9000 switch family, as Sean reported.

As might be expected, not everyone in the industry is on board with ACI. Over on ENP sister site eWeek, Jeffrey Burt pointed out that the very concept of software defined networking represents a threat to Cisco’s business and that “rivals were quick to paint ACI as Cisco’s way of ensuring customers continue buying its expensive hardware even though SDN includes the promise of being able to run their networks via software housed on lower cost boxes.”

Juniper and PLUMgrid execs question Cisco’s ACI strategy

Mike Marcellin, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for Juniper’s Platform Systems Division, is a vocal critic of ACI. According to Marcellin, Cisco’s ACI strategy will work to lock customers in to a proprietary Cisco SDN stack. The fact that Cisco is working on an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) to go along with its Nexus 9000 ACI switches tends to bear this out.

Marcellin called out Cisco’s need to protect its legacy business and contrasted it with Juniper’s MetaFabric architecture and strategy, which “underscores Juniper’s commitment to simplification and openness,” he said in a statement to ENP and eWeek.

“Cisco’s answer to the customer need for more software agility is to double the number of chips in every box. That worked when Doritos introduced their party size bag, but not so much in networking,” Marcellin said.

Marcellin isn’t the only one questioning Cisco’s strategy, either. Pere Monclus, CTO of overlay SDN startup PLUMgrid, questioned Cisco’s focus on hardware. “In launching their hardware-centric SDN stack, Cisco highlighted scalability and security (things that we believe virtual network infrastructure excels at) as SDN limitations that a hardware-focused approach can address, but skirted the concepts of openness, extensibility, and feature agility needed in this industry. Software overlays can provide that, not ASICs and hardware infrastructure,” Monclus told Enterprise Networking Planet. Monclus added that “overall, the Insieme/ACI announcement is good validation of the networking models that the SDN community and vendors like PLUMgrid have been deploying in customers for the last 12 months, but it shows that a mismatch of cultures is still present in the Cisco solution.”

Monclus expressed some optimism, however. “We look forward to the opportunity to deploy our advanced VNI solution on top of Insieme hardware fabrics to complement the limitations and shortcomings of a hardware-based approach to application-aware infrastructure,” he said.

Plexxi: Positive about ACI

Not everyone’s piling on Cisco. Over at Plexxi, the response is positive. Michael Bushong, VP of marketing (and occasional Enterprise Networking Planet guest contributor), told me that he agrees with “Cisco’s central thesis that applications ought to come first.” He added that “our industry needs to start and end with the application. This is one of Plexxi’s founding principles, and we are thrilled to see the industry dialogue shift in our direction.”

And the networking world needs to realize that hardware still matters, Bushong said. “So much of the networking focus right now is on software, with SDN, network virtualization, NFV, and DevOps all garnering attention. But there is a physical aspect of delivering application workloads that cannot be ignored.”

What Cisco is doing right is “offering application workload orchestration,” Bushong said. “The ability to specify what is important to an application, translate that into lower-level device behavior, and provide the physical infrastructure to deliver that is powerful. Cisco has wrapped this into a tightly integrated solution. The tradeoff here is flexibility, and customers will ultimately need to decide the extent to which they want choice and freedom. But so long as the outcome is a dynamic, application-driven environment, customers will be better off.”

Bushong cautioned against vendors giving in to the impulse to tear apart competitors’ products, stating that vendor self-interest is “part of the reason the network is in the dark ages relative to other parts of the data center.” For the industry to move forward, he said, the industry needs to collaborate much more than it has to date, not only on development of new technologies, but also on education of the user base.

“The last thing we need is a tit-for-tat war,” he said.

What’s your response to Cisco’s ACI announcement, and vendors’ reactions to it? Let us know in the comments.

ENP editor Jude ChaoJude Chao is executive editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.

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