Data centers

06:51 PM
Greg Ferro
Greg Ferro
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Cisco ACI Solves All Your Data Center Network Problems

Cisco launches its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), bringing open overlay networking and SDN to the entire data center.

Nexus 9000 and Beyond

Cisco is announcing another switching platform that is able to work with the APIC controller and provide ACI functions. The Nexus 9000 product family uses Broadcom Trident 2 merchant silicon to provide 10 Gigabit and 40 Gigabit Ethernet switching. As a technology, the hardware has little to differentiate it from competitors besides its size and the fact that it doesn't use Cisco's own switch silicon. Compared to other Cisco products, it consumes less power, space and is much lower cost.

The Nexus 9000 switches use an overhauled version of the NX-OS software that combines with Broadcom Trident silicon to provide the connectivity and orchestration between the virtual network and the physical network. NX-OS Plus delivers the necessary API support for the APIC to query and update the device. It also enables greater control of the flows and functions in the device through the use of customized software drivers for Trident 2 silicon.

My view is that customers should focus on the fixed format switches that are also rolling out and deploy scalable Layer 3 ECMP designs at much less cost. The Nexus 9000 chassis is oversized for all but largest data centers. These new Nexus 9300 top-of-rack switches will easily replace most of the older and tired Catalyst 4500 and 6500 switches in the data center. At a physical level, the port density and forwarding performance is similar to other Trident 2 products on the market. Check out the data sheets for details.

More on NX-OS Plus and Network Protocols

Cisco is also releasing yet another software train where "NX-OS Plus forms the basis of the operating system in the Nexus 9000" and provides the software interfaces for network function. This NX-OS Plus firmware seems to be an overhauled version of NX-OS created by Insieme during its startup phase. NX-OS Plus provides the API support for APIC and deeper integration with the silicon to provide the necessary control functions over ternary content addressable memory (TCAM) and binary content addressable memory (BCAM) for flow management.

NX-OS Plus will be available for some models of existing Nexus 7000 equipment, allowing their inclusion in the APIC infrastructure stack. There were also hints that most Cisco business units are planning to enable APIC capability, although this will likely take some years to arrive.

It's my understanding that the APIC relies on proprietary extensions in network frame format. These are based on the IEEE 802.1BR standard called VNtag/VNLink and usually known as fabric extension or FEX. FEX is already widely used in the Cisco UCS and the Nexus 7K/5K/2K products, but I was unable to confirm the details of its use in the new launches at this time.

Cisco has either extended the VXLAN packet format with VNtag/VNLink data or used VNtag/VNLink so that its internal solution is independent of the overlay protocol. While we don't yet have deep technical detail on how the ACI technology works at the network level, I will hazard a guess that it is close to Dynamic Fabric Automation, using a specialized tag format to provide in-band tenancy data in combination with control plane state.

Today's product announcement is all about ACI strategy, the APIC controller and Nexus 9000 hardware, but integration with hypervisors remains a key topic. Both OpenStack and vCloud Director are vital product strategies that Cisco must capture in the months ahead. The Nexus 1000 software switching has some early support for APIC, but that's yet to come.

But Wait, There's More!

Cisco is also attempting to address the larger business problems relating to networking and change management. These are focused around service insertion. Cisco is emphasizing its longstanding relationships with other vendors that are pledging to support APIC in the early stages. For customers who are managing complex network services with a range of appliances, it is reassuring to know their existing investments will be maintained.

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Joe Onisick
Joe Onisick,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/13/2013 | 2:37:59 AM
re: Cisco ACI Solves All Your Data Center Network Problems
Greg, just as an FYI each paragraph here has a galring technical error, I would point them out but it would take a full blog to do so. It's best to do a little research/fact check or not write at all.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/8/2013 | 1:13:27 PM
re: Cisco ACI Solves All Your Data Center Network Problems
The authour seriously needs to review his understanding of ITIL because the description portrayed in this article was a complete nonsense, one can only assume he has spent far too much time at the lower levels of the stack to comprehend it.

While BPM and ITSM are complementary they're certainly not interchangeable terms, so to suggest that business processes are derived from ITIL is quite frankly absurd.

Even more ludicrous is the suggestion that somehow organisations who have adopted ITIL best practices wouldn't be able to take advantage of what Cisco are proposing when they clearly purport at being able to tie together both physical and virtual, management across the infrastructure stack, ensuring resource optimisation and improved visibility. Nowhere in the ITIL framework have I read that IT Service Management can't be made easy?

Coincidentally, if you are referring to the silos as they exist today ITIL was not responsible, that's very much down to the era of the Client-server approach.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/7/2013 | 8:52:56 PM
re: Cisco ACI Solves All Your Data Center Network Problems
Exactly how is all of this going to make networking simpler? Instead of waiting till 2014 for Cisco's ACI strategy, why not look at Shortest Path Bridging from Avaya. It is available now and does what SDN is trying to do. :-) Plus it is an industry standard with multi-vendor support.
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