Cisco ACI: 4 Critical Questions For Customers

Networking customers considering Cisco ACI for their data centers will want to dig into the details of the SDN strategy. But they should also be asking these big-picture questions.

Greg Ferro

December 17, 2013

6 Min Read
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Networking customers considering Cisco ACI for their data centers will want to dig into the details of the SDN strategy. But they should also be asking these big-picture questions.

Cisco recently announced its new software-defined networking strategy, Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). Last week, I wrote about some of the drawbacks of the platform, including its complexity and Cisco's history of software development. Here I outline some other questions customers should ask themselves before venturing into Cisco ACI.

How does ACI compare with other platforms?

All the signs show that Cisco is rallying behind ACI as its flagship SDN product. But we must remember that Cisco also has Dynamic Fabric Automation, the OpenFlow-based Extensible Network Controller, and the Cisco ONE strategy for third-party software integration. At the same time, VMware NSX, Nuage Networks, Midokura, and Big Switch, to name a few, also have products that compete directly -- many offering similar benefits for lower costs.

When discussing Cisco ACI with anyone, the most common question I hear is, "How does it compare to VMware NSX?" It's a fair question, but one that should never be asked. Cisco owns 70% or more of the networking market, dominates network standards bodies, and has a proven history of customer satisfaction. Yet everyone sees VMware NSX as an obvious competitor. Last year, VMware was not a networking company; this year it competes with Cisco. Ouch.

Cisco will need to convince customers that the ACI strategy of integrated and hardware software is the right choice. The VMware NSX story of software independence has real power and will make sense to a large audience. Importantly, NSX has been deployed for more than four years in large companies, and the new version is available today.

Is Cisco SDN really open?

Another issue is the level of Cisco's commitment to open standards. In the last decade, Cisco has managed to turn many open protocols into proprietary features that either provide customer value or create technology lock-in, depending on your point of view. More recently, Cisco has joined open initiatives such as OpenStack and OpenDaylight and been a strong participant. However the company sends mixed signals with actions like forking the OpenStack code to make their own distribution and railroading its favorite protocols like LISP and PCEP into the OpenDaylight controller.

Customers are keen to mitigate the risk of transitioning to SDN, and their apprehension seems to polarize into debates around standards and openness. Cisco claims that ACI is open to communicating and integrating with other products, but this "openness" may well turn out to be more like Apple and its iPhone apps than the IETF/IEEE model of openness.

Those interested in Cisco ACI but seeking an open solution should carefully examine how ACI will support VMware cloud products, OpenStack, and Microsoft Hyper-V/SCOM before locking into the ACI ecosystem.

How does ACI fit with Cisco's other products?

With so many products in the mix, it's reasonable to question Cisco's commitment to support any or all of them over the long term. In the decade from 1998 to 2008, Cisco had only one data center switch: the venerable Catalyst 6500. Today, Cisco has five product families in the data center with significant feature and function overlaps. With the addition of ACI, it's a confusing morass of products that customers and resellers will struggle to make clear decisions about, add delays to the purchasing cycle. More delays may occur while customers pause on network upgrades while deciding which strategy to follow.

Cisco has made a significant push in marketing its capability to build and consume its own silicon. This year it used its UADP ASICs in many small and mid-sized products
like the C3850 and 5500 series wireless controllers. And the nPower
ASIC was announced for
service providers platforms. The Nexus 9000 family, however, is made from Broadcom silicon like the Nexus 3000. These products compete directly with the existing Nexus 7K/6K/5K/2K product families built from Cisco's own silicon.

[Read Greg Ferro's take on why customers should be cautious with ACI in Cisco ACI: Proceed At Your Peril.]

Silicon aside, there are more than 30 current Ethernet switch models in the Nexus lineup that share 90% of their features and capabilities. Specifically, the Nexus 9000 overlaps enormously with many of Cisco's other data center products. The Nexus 6000 would seem to be at serious risk as a Layer 3 ECMP scale-out switching platform at price multiples of the Nexus 9000. Customers using Nexus 7000 products for data center core also may be questioning its longevity. The Nexus 7700 was recently refreshed, and it remains a kitchen sink for features including MPLS, OTV, and LISP, but lacks orchestration or automation for SDN applications.

Customers who are hoping to see Cisco ACI come to the Nexus 7000 family in the form of NX-OS Plus software should be cautious. NX-OS has a long history of late delivery with poor code quality and complex upgrades. Even if NX-OS Plus ships in years ahead, it's reasonable to expect to purchase new line cards to get ACI integration based on past experience.

Is buying Cisco products still a safe bet?

Cisco customers expect certainty and clarity from Cisco on the future of networking technology. In the case of data center networks, Cisco is giving them every possible choice and letting them decide. This could easily lead to lack of consumer confidence. While Cisco is a diversified business, a large percentage of profits come from routing and switching product lines, and any delay in the purchasing pipeline could have a significant impact in the company's stability.

With limited profits coming in from the new low-cost Nexus 9000 added to the expense of buying Insieme back for $863 million, Cisco could face a revenue problem. If customers switch to Cisco ACI and Nexus 9000 hardware, common sense suggests that the software will be expensive. It is highly unlikely that customers will be replacing expensive Nexus 7700 switches and actually getting cheaper products.

Cisco will no doubt push the ACI message hard. But the company's hold on the data center is less than it used to be. It's well known that many public cloud companies have very little Cisco equipment in their data centers, and options are growing. The OpenCompute project is close to completing an open hardware switch, and Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks are demonstrating that small companies can build a switch operating system.

The SDN market is a crowded place with many motivated startups and competitors who have real products to demonstrate and sell. It seems reasonable to assume that ACI will be widely available in 2015 once the software is stable and the hardware starts to ship in volume. Until then, questions must be asked.

About the Author(s)

Greg Ferro

Network Architect & Blogger

Greg has nearly 30 years of experience as an IT infrastructure engineer and has been focused on data networking for about 20, including 12 years as Cisco CCIE. He has worked in Asia and Europe as a network engineer and architect for a wide range of large and small firms in many verticals. He has been writing about networking for more than 20 years and in the media since 2001.

You canemail Gregor follow him on Twitter as@etherealmind. He also writes the technical blogEtherealmind.comand hosts a weekly podcast on data networking atPacket Pushers.

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