Cisco's recently announced ACI strategy is going to be tough to sell to customers. It's confusing and only one of several Cisco SDN strategies, and it doesn't ship until mid-2014 at the earliest. In the meantime, other SDN vendors are shipping real products and customers are using them. The challenges Cisco ACI has to overcome, combined with the company's sad history of failed software projects, will make many customers think twice.
In a previous article, I looked at the features and functions of Cisco ACI, and explained all the benefits that ACI brings to the table. This article examines the challenges and weakness in the Cisco's ACI SDN strategy.
A few weeks have passed since ACI's launch, and I've had time to take a more critical look at the details. The most interesting comment I've heard was that ACI is "entirely predictable and lacks leadership." It is clear that many perceive ACI as a "me too" SDN strategy. Cisco ACI is similar to all other SDN strategies: Network controllers, network applications, and software services combining to provide automation and orchestration is now a well-known story in the networking industry. For those who are interested in SDN, Cisco is obviously late to the market, launching with a marketing strategy containing few details and an incomplete product announcement.
Cisco dominates the networking market today with a hardware-centric product focus. Therefore, delivering a hardware-centric SDN vision in the early days is an obvious choice for the company. Customers who don't understand SDN might feel assurance that Cisco is articulating some long-term strategy. But more advanced buyers are still searching for the reasons why custom hardware is necessary for SDN. It should be noted that ACI also has a software-only capability, but it was largely buried at launch.
While there were a lot of expectations leading up to the ACI launch, the result was a "promise of futures." Cisco will ship a few products to selected customers in the next year or so for early testing. The only product available before year-end is a low-cost 10 GbE switch made from Broadcom Trident silicon. Cisco is struggling to maintain market share in that segment.
The ACI platform has many moving parts including software and hardware, and will take years to achieve momentum. It took Cisco 90 minutes to explain the entire product and technical strategy to me. Customers are being asked embrace and buy into Cisco's very specific and very large network vision of the future. It's a vision that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Adopting ACI will require strategic engagement to change the entire infrastructure strategy in the datacenter. Implementing a single ACI instance will require wholesale change to some long-held business models governing change and operational management through automation. Many companies are still using ITIL business models that drive a project-driven change model with limits on initiating change. It is not clear how Cisco ACI will convince customers to replace longstanding business processes and overhaul networking.
One of ACI's strongest features is that it can integrate with and even "emulate" your existing network. In practice, this could lead to sales questions about the value of networking anyway and may steer customers toward alternate vendors.
Customers may also take pause when they consider project complexity in terms of deployment and professional services. Cisco has a checkered history of developing software; consistently failing to develop or maintain products during the last decade. A long line of failed software products from acquisitions or internal development suggests a systemic business problem. Customers remember abandoned strategies like Application Oriented Networking and products like CS-MARS and CiscoWorks. Some will question whether Cisco can do software, as well as its commitment to all of its products.
In addition, the hardware-centric model has some risk. If Cisco continues to focus on hardware as its core value proposition, then it may not be able to make the transition to software and applications. Remember that Insieme started as a software spin-out because Cisco felt it was not able to innovate and create software internally. That Insieme incorporated hardware products into ACI at the last minute suggests that parts of Cisco feel the only possible solution is a hardware solution.
Another warning will be understood best by those who remember the last major spin-in of Nuova Systems, which resulted in Cisco UCS servers and Nexus 5000/2000 switches. The early versions of these products had poor software quality and almost no features. Cisco has worked diligently to smooth out the pain points, and five years later the products are stable and reliable enough. Customers are right to question early versions of ACI that have resulted from a rushed startup. Who wants to be stuck in a cycle of hardware upgrades for new features such as those required for UCS and Nexus hardware?
Some last words of caution relate to the partnerships that Cisco publicized to demonstrate commitment to the ACI platform. Those same vendors signed up to partner with VMware and a number of other vendors. The current rumor mill suggests that Cisco is mulling a purchase of Embrane. If that were true, such an acquisition would put Cisco at odds with many of its "partners," because Embrane does network orchestration for load balancing, firewalls, and more.