Cisco is launching its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) today, prompting a whirlwind of competitor announcements and keeping industry watchers perched on the edges of their seats. Does the platform, built on Cisco subsidiary Insieme's architecture, live up to all the anticipation and revolutionize SDN? Well, the ACI strategy has strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with an overview of ACI and its strengths.
The opening pitch for Cisco ACI starts with two key points. First, the statistics show only 21% of data center workloads are virtualized today and 42% of those customers have multiple hypervisor vendors. Because of this, Cisco maintains that hypervisor-based overlay networking does not address the real requirements that customers have. The second point is that networking has not yet lived up to its service potential to the business, and network value must be improved upon. Enter Cisco ACI as an open approach for software-defined networking (SDN).
ACI is the most significant SDN product strategy that Cisco has released to date. ACI is a combined controller and application platform that offers an end-to-end orchestration strategy for the entire network, including physical and virtual systems. Unlike many other SDN products, ACI is not dependent on any OS support for its operation which is its key competitive advantage. ACI delivers an SDN solution for the entire data center network ecosystem. Cisco is offering customers a new technology platform that provides a smooth transition from physical to cloud networking, while safely maintaining backward compatibility and protecting the investment of existing systems in the data center.
Most readers will be familiar with the concept of controller-based networking and how flow management allows for coarse-grained control of network traffic. Cisco ACI uses these concepts to create a network-wide solution encompassing physical AND virtual networks by tightly integrating the controller, application, device firmware and physical hardware.
Cisco has also developed a new policy-driven application engine named the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). The APIC is intended to use existing open standards -- both southbound and northbound -- in addition to its own proprietary extensions for Cisco hardware. That is, the APIC offers support for OpenFlow, OVSDB, onePK and NetConf, in addition to the new protocols developed by Insieme. Cisco went to great pains to point out that it will support all protocol options and support all open protocols. The APIC information model will also be available to a wide range of third parties so that the partners can integrate and enhance the value of the network as a fundamental technology.
APIC is tightly integrated with physical network devices through enhanced device firmware. This allows metadata from the physical network to be gathered to perform orchestration of physical network endpoints. For virtual networking, Cisco will be leveraging the existing Nexus 1000 product to integrate with VMware, Hyper-V and KVM hypervisor platforms and extract server and application metadata.