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Cisco ACI Making Progress

As Cisco continues its efforts to transform itself into the No. 1 IT company in the world, its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) initiative will be a critical step that many are closely following. Cisco has admitted it was late to the SDN game and it wasn’t until last fall that it fully launched ACI, which was based on technology from its Insieme spin-in, namely the Nexus 9000 and the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC).

When ACI was unveiled back in November, many had to hear the story a few times before fully understanding the approach. If I recall, it was the same for many when they first heard about UCS. ACI is a comprehensive approach that aligns with Cisco’s desire to provide a comprehensive IT platform to transform a customer’s computing environment, and it ensures the infrastructure is focused on the application.

Ultimately, ACI will tie together physical and virtual compute, network, and storage by leveraging centralized policies and orchestration.

Here is how ACI is shaping up:

  • The Nexus 9000 family has been available since December. The Cisco Application-centric Virtual Switch (AVS), which is an APIC-enabled Nexus 1000V virtual switch, also is available. Existing ASR 9000 and Nexus 7000 can be leveraged for datacenter interconnects in an ACI environment.
  • The APIC is going through beta testing and there is a simulator that can be deployed. APIC should be generally available this summer. Cisco is also releasing an APIC enterprise module this summer to tie application policy model into the access layer and WAN. This will enable APIC to leverage existing Cisco resources, and will be available for free to all SMARTnet customers.
  • It is widely understood that SDN will require an ecosystem of partners to deliver full functionality; Cisco’s ACI is no different. Currently, the Cisco ACI ecosystem includes A10 Networks, BMC, Canonical, Catbird, CA Technologies, CF Engine, Citrix, Cloudera, CloudStack, EMC, Embrane, Emulex, F5 Networks, IBM, MapR, Microsoft, NetApp, NetQoS, NetScout, Niksun, OpenStack, Opscode/Chef, Panduit, Python, Puppet Labs, Radware, Red Hat, SAP, Sourcefire (now owned by Cisco), Splunk, Symantec, VCE, and VMware.

According to Cisco, the ACI story is beginning to resonate: It already has 175 Nexus 9000 customers and more than 50 organizations testing APIC in one way or another. Note: APIC is not generally available yet; these are all beta or simulator customers. Both FlexPod and vBlock integrated compute platforms (ICPs) have committed to leveraging ACI as part of the platform. These initial numbers are impressive given the short time frame since launching, but given Cisco’s total installed market, it's barely scratching the surface.

What else does Cisco need to do to accelerate ACI adoption?

1. Validate the ACI technology and amplify the message. Tell the ACI story early and often. It will be imperative to elevate the ACI message and ensure organizations understand the comprehensive ACI story that covers physical and virtual and will encompass compute, network, and eventually storage.  

2. Work diligently with existing customers. Initial conversations indicated that existing customers with big investments in the prior Nexus family were not thrilled with the ACI approach. Cisco needs to show how they can protect their investments. You can bet competitors like Arista, Brocade, Dell, Extreme, HP, and Juniper all see this as an opportunity and are aggressively pursuing these customers.

3. Continue to expand and validate the ACI ecosystem. Cisco needs to continue to develop this ecosystem to provide as wide as possible choice of solutions. This is really about demonstrating to customers that Cisco is serious about delivering solutions to its customers and it’s not just a Barney-type ecosystem (Barney is the big purple dinosaur in the children's TV show that sings, “I love you, you love me”). The more Cisco can do to validate these multi-vendor solutions, the better.

4. Focus on security. Given the fact that Target just set the precedent that security is now a CEO problem and not just a CIO issue, you can expect there will be more attention paid to this area. By focusing on security with ACI, Cisco could accelerate adoption rates.