The big announcement out of the Cisco Live! event last week was the unveiling of the Application Centric Infrastructure (API) by Cisco spin-in Insieme Networks Inc. And other vendors are following suit, developing products that take networking beyond software-defined networking and into the realm of applications.
There were no more concrete details available on the Cisco platform yet, but the company promised it will start putting real flesh and blood into this strategy with product announcements following later this year.
With this new architecture, Cisco makes it clear that SDN, whether that's based on a controller approach or an overlay model, falls way short of what's required for the datacenter, which needs to support everything from video applications (e.g., YouTube) and cloud applications (e.g., Salesforce, Cisco WebEx) to distributed big-data applications (e.g., Hadoop).
Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior writes in her blog:
SDN promised to meet the needs of new apps by delivering greater scale, programmability, centralized management and automation. But SDN, to date, can’t meet the needs of applications because it mimics the old model of networking. It doesn’t unify physical and virtual.
According to Warrior, where SDN falls short, Cisco's new architecture delivers:
In order to meet these demands, the infrastructure must evolve. It must become application-centric. Network, compute, and storage need to be able to operate as one high-performance resource pool that can be provisioned instantly and automatically according to the needs of the application and related IT policies with security pervasive throughout.
For those who want more on how Cisco thinks its vision will transform the datacenter, watch this video with Soni Jiandani, Insieme SVP.
Outside of Cisco, there possibly is no bigger fan of the application-centric infrastructure than Cambridge, Mass., startup Plexxi Inc. Plexxi takes the position that there needs to be close affinity between application and network in order to have application-driven networking. The company calls its strategy "Affinity Networking," and going by Network World's description, there's not much daylight between that and Cisco's application-centric infrastructure:
The concept behind [Affinity Networking] is that physical and virtual servers, storage and networking devices need to be connected to each other as directly as possible, and that groups of these devices work together as part of an application workload -- exhibiting 'affinity' to each other.
In fact, in his blog Plexxi VP of marketing Mike Bushong was practically chortling with glee over Cisco's endorsement of Plexxi's vision, which runs counter to VMware's notion for datacenter traffic:
There is a subtle but extremely important strategic element that is playing out here. The ultimate question is whether problems will be solved by throwing bandwidth at the problem (VMware) or intelligence (Cisco). Of course, we all know the real answer to this is going to be a mix of both bandwidth and intelligence. I probably don’t need to tell you where Plexxi stands in all of this.
So what we have now, at least at a high level, is an interesting situation of two very different vendors sharing the same strategy -- one a startup backed with $48 million in venture funds and which unveiled its products late last year; the other for which that kind of money is, to put it mildly, chump change.
Even more important, Cisco will be paying a much higher price if it does not establish itself as the leader in a new open, programmable networking paradigm that lowers capex/opex, regardless of whether it's called SDN or something else. Oh, and one last thing: Cisco has what -- about a gazillion customers? I may have missed it, but it sure would have been nice to hear some of them give the new vision a thumbs-up.