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Gartner Names Cisco & Arista Data Center Networking Leaders

Gartner this week released its 2015 Data Center Networking Magic Quadrant, providing insight into SDN adoption and recognizing fierce rivals Cisco and Arista Networks as leaders in a rapidly changing market.

"This market has undergone massive innovation and change over the past few years with the emergence of fabrics, SDN, and disaggregation/brite-box, etc., after more than a decade of architectural consistency and mostly incremental innovation (3-tier core/dist/access, anyone?)," Andrew Lerner, a research director at Gartner and co-author of the report, wrote in a blog post.

He noted that having leaders in this year's Data Center Networking Magic Quadrant is different from last year's, when there were no leaders. Gartner categorizes six vendors as "visionaries" and three as "niche players." The other vendors in the report are Avaya, Brocade, Dell, Extreme Networks, HP, Huawei, Juniper Networks, Lenovo, and VMware.

Gartner describes Arista as "by far" the fastest-growing vendor in its data center networking quadrant. The analysts cited Arista's scalable architecture, tight integration with a range of orchestration and SDN products, and flexible software as its major strengths. On the down side, Cisco's patent and copyright infringement lawsuit creates an increased level of perceived risk for potential customers, they noted.

The lawsuit prompted sharp responses from Arista executives, who portrayed Cisco as a legacy vendor failing to keep up with a changing industry.

Meanwhile, Cisco has the largest installed base of any of the vendors in the study, so it has the advantage of having a lot of network engineers who are familiar with its technology, according to Gartner. Also on the plus side, it has a deep and broad portfolio and its networking products are embedded in several integrated systems.

However, Cisco products are among the highest priced, based on feedback the analysts got from Gartner clients. The company also has a history of creating products with closed, propriety features. Moreover, Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) platform doesn't offer investment protection for existing Catalyst and Nexus customers, or have features like FCoE that some organizations use, according to Gartner.

Gartner estimates there are fewer than 25 large-scale enterprise production ACI installations as of March. "Enterprise clients continue to report that Cisco has difficulty producing production references for ACI deployments," analysts said in their report.

At the Cisco Partner Summit late last month, Cisco released its latest ACI customer numbers, covering its most recent fiscal quarter. The company said it added 231 new Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) customers, for total of 585, and added 974 new Nexus 9000 switch customers for a total of 2,655 customers. APIC is the heart of Cisco's ACI SDN platform. Nexus 9000 switches can be run in ACI mode with a software upgrade.

SDN adoption

Many of the vendors in the report have made substantial progress with their SDN strategies, the analysts wrote. "From the user perspective, 2014 became the year of early mainstream SDN 'tire kicking' as the market evolved beyond the 'marketecture' announcements that largely categorized 2013," they wrote.

Gartner estimates that there are about 1,000 enterprise SDN data center deployments, about three times more than a year ago.

Those interested in SDN technologies include technically sophisticated organizations willing to take risks as well as what Gartner describes as "fast followers" after risks are mitigated and proof points for a technology are established. These companies are interested in SDN for a number of reasons, including faster provisioning of workloads, improved security, better management, and reduced vendor lock-in according to Gartner.

Several trends are converging to radically alter the data center networking landscape, according to Gartner. The report cites the web-scale IT run by Internet giants like Google and Facebook as influencing enterprise demand for increased agility, better management and open technologies in their data center networks.

Differentiation between products is increasingly shifting to software, including automation and orchestration, with hardware capabilities like bandwidth and capacity more standardized, according to Gartner.