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Your Network's Next Step: Cisco ACI Or VMware NSX

Editor's Note: This article is written by Joe Onisick, an engineer at Cisco who helped develop and works closely with ACI technology. While we recognize that the column may have inherent biases, Joe is known as an authority on this subject, and we feel that he addresses points that are important to our readers. Other subject matter experts interested in contributing technical articles may contact the editors.

With the industry buzzing about software-defined networking (SDN), there are two products that often lead the discussion: Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) and VMware's NSX. Many organizations are in the midst of assessing which solution is correct for them and their networks moving forward. In this column we'll take a look at some of the factors that go into deciding which product is appropriate and even when they should be used together.

To get a baseline of both technologies, we'll start with a quick overview of each offering.

VMware NSX
VMware NSX is a hypervisor networking solution designed to manage, automate, and provide basic Layer 4-7 services to virtual machine traffic. NSX is capable of providing switching, routing, and basic load-balancer and firewall services to data moving between virtual machines from within the hypervisor. For non-virtual machine traffic (handled by more than 70% of data center servers), NSX requires traffic to be sent into the virtual environment. While NSX is often classified as an SDN solution, that is really not the case.

SDN is defined as providing the ability to manage the forwarding of frames/packets and apply policy; to perform this at scale in a dynamic fashion; and to be programmed. This means that an SDN solution must be able to forward frames. Because NSX has no hardware switching components, it is not capable of moving frames or packets between hosts, or between virtual machines and other physical resources. In my view, this places VMware NSX into the Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) category. NSX virtualizes switching and routing functions, with basic load-balancer and firewall functions.

Two versions of NSX exist, depending on a customer's infrastructure requirements. There is the more feature-heavy NSX for VMware, which works only with VMware hypervisors and automation tools, or NSX Multi-Hypervisor, which has limited support for some Linux hypervisors, but requires a VMware distribution of OVS that is split off from the open community trunk. According to VMware, NSX-MH is currently being phased out.

NSX's strongest selling point is security isolation within a hypervisor. This falls into the category of "micro-segmentation." NSX is able to deploy routing and basic load-balancing and firewall services between virtual machines on the same hypervisor. Again, this is NFV functionality, not SDN functionality, which would require ability to forward packets between devices.

Cisco ACI
Cisco ACI is designed to look at both the change in hardware requirements and the agility provided by software control of networks as a system, rather than manual configuration of individual devices.

From a hardware perspective, two major changes are driving the need for network refresh:

  1. The move from 1G to 10G is being driven by current processor capabilities and 10G LAN on motherboard (LOM) shipping with new servers. This then drives requirements for 40G/100G ports for traffic aggregation and forwarding distribution across access or leaf layer switches.
  2. Changes in data center traffic patterns are driving the requirement for a shift in network topology design. Modern data centers move the majority of data in an East-West pattern, which means server-to-server communication. Three-tier network architectures are designed for traditional North-South traffic patterns, which supported legacy application architectures.

These changes require physical hardware refresh as well as topology change within the data center, and cannot be solved with software-only solutions. The requirement for these changes is reflected within the best practices guides of even software-only solutions such as VMware NSX. The best practices guides for these products suggest 10G/40G non-blocking, 2-tier, spine-leaf designs. These are the same designs recommended by network vendors such as Cisco and utilized by ACI.

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