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Cisco Continues SDN Evolution With vCider Acquisition

Cisco announced on Thursday that it is acquiring vCider, a privately held, Mountain View, Calif.-based start up whose network overlay technology helps corporate data centers reach into the cloud. The move represents another step in the networking giant's software defined networking (SDN) agenda, while also furthering complicating its evolving relationship with VMware.

In a blog post announcing the purchase, Hilton Romanski, a Cisco VP and its head of corporate business development, said vCider's technology will factor into Cisco's Open Network Environment (ONE) strategy, which aims to do more than merely separate the control plane from the data plane--a popular definition of what SDN achieves--by developing network programmability options to meet the varied needs of different enterprises and institutions. He wrote that vCider's multitenant distributed virtual network controller will be integrated into Cisco's Quantum plug-in for OpenStack, which is "designed to give application developers increased programmability of both [the] virtual and physical networks" that will link clouds to ONE's capabilities.

vCider's technology places overlay connections on top of a network, which allows paths to be carved out for particular data flows and dynamic traffic patterns to be accommodated. Nicira offers a similar product, so Cisco's move can be seen as an aggressive step to stake out territory in the emerging SDN space--particularly with regard to VMware, which purchased Nicira in July.

The Nicira acquisition immediately sparked speculation that VMware was positioning itself as a competitor to Cisco, one of its key business partners. When VMware later joined the OpenStack project, in which Cisco is heavily invested, some wondered whether the gesture was intended to bolster or hinder the open-source cloud framework. Indications are that the virtualization leader will be a supportive contributor.

Chris Wolf, a Gartner VP, said in an interview that VMware's buy "might have strained [its] relationship" with Cisco but countered that, "at the end of the day, Cisco makes a lot of revenue around VMware deals, and that will continue." He remarked that the companies are likely to remain solid software partners even as they begin to compete with one another.

Regarding the vCider deal, Wolf stated that "SDN is increasingly important to our clients" and that Cisco's acquisition shows it "wants to be a leader in that market." More than a decade ago, he said, IBM "had the assumption that it was the [leading] virtualization company because it always had been." This led Big Blue to be unpleasantly surprised when a then-upstart VMware begin to make waves. Cisco, he stated, could go down the same road--but the new move suggests it recognized "it's not owed the future of networking and will have to fight like everyone else."

The deal amounts to "laying down the hammer, to saying, 'This is our space,'" he said.

Wolf also noted that vCider's technology will allow Cisco to play a bigger role in the management space. "A lot of traditional access layer networking equipment is becoming virtual," he said, noting that because customers can buy software instead of expensive hardware, Cisco needed to adapt to evade threats to its core business.

When it comes to adapting, Cisco has been active of late. The company has acquired six other companies this year, most recently ThinkSmart, a maker of location-based analytics tools. On Wednesday, it also announced Unified Access, which converges wired, wireless and VPN networks into a single management plane. Earlier this year, the company poured $100 million into an SDN startup called Insieme, which was founded by three Cisco employees.

How all the activity will shake out remains to be seen, but it's clear that Cisco is making good on CTO Padmasree Warrior's August promise to reveal more details about the company's "vision for driving network virtualization, including SDN."