As solution providers see it, Cisco isn't late to the software-defined networking (SDN) game -- it's changing it.
"They are changing the market completely," said Steven Reese, Chief Technology Officer at SIGMAnet, an Ontario, Calif.-based Cisco Gold partner, of Cisco's Insieme Networks launch Wednesday. "They are tackling [SDN] from a whole different direction that I think will lead to a lot of these startups and a lot of the bigger players scrambling to realign their strategy to look more like what Cisco is doing."
Cisco's long-awaited SDN strategy finally came to light Wednesday in New York City, when the networking giant formally unveiled its SDN-focused "spin-in" Insieme Networks, its new application-centric infrastructure (ACI), and a new line of Nexus switches to support it.
The Insieme unveiling came as buzz around the SDN market -- projected by industry analyst IDC to reach $3.7 billion by 2016 -- reaches an all-time high. A flood of new SDN-focused products hit the networking market this year, emerging from startups like Big Switch Networks and from networking and virtualization incumbents including Hewlett-Packard and VMware.
But Cisco says, with Insieme, it has something different.
"Our application-centric infrastructure provides programmability and functions into the data center and cloud with properties of SDN and the things that are already popular in the market place," Frank D'Agostino, senior director, Technical Marketing and Solutions Engineering at Insieme Networks, told CRN. "Except we go well beyond that. Those are just basic properties of the network now."
According to Cisco, ACI takes the core concepts of SDN technologies -- i.e. making networks more programmable, automated and easier to manage -- and evolves them a step further.
Cisco has specifically positioned ACI as the next evolution beyond SDN or network virtualization overlays, a common type of SDN deployment that involves running a separate, software-based layer on top of existing network infrastructures. Cisco rivals ranging from Big Switch to VMware, which rolled out its network virtualization platform NSX in August, have popularized this overlay concept.
Cisco argues that this overlay or "software-only" approach to network virtualization falls short in a number of ways.
"What we are seeing from our customers that have been early adopters of these first-generation SDN solutions is that they have issues with scale, and they have issues with visibility because the overlay is not coordinated with the underlay," D'Agostino told CRN. "In this [overlay] environment, what they are doing is inserting a second network between the application and the physical network, and it's increasing complexity and the reliability is going down. Quite honestly, it's a disjointed operation."
NEXT: A Closer Look At ACI
Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research, said he views ACI as one of the most comprehensive SDN strategies on the market today and agreed with Cisco's focus on moving beyond the overlay concept.
"Let's say VMware gets their way, and then you have every department in the enterprise able to create its own network virtual overlay," Kerravala said. "If there's a problem, how do you even go about troubleshooting that? Your network operations team has no visibility into what's really going on. It winds up like a ships-in-the-night scenario."
In response to these overlay limitations, Cisco and Insieme introduced ACI, a new fabric-based data center architecture.
Cisco said ACI, like many of the SDN technologies already on the market, allows networks to be more programmable and open but differentiates itself by placing applications at the heart of a user's infrastructure policies. In other words, ACI aims to make the data center dynamically respond to the needs of applications, rather than the other way around.
Supporting ACI are hardware components including merchant silicon and custom ASICs from Insieme, along with Cisco's new Nexus 9000 line. Another component of ACI is the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), which Cisco says provides a unified point of automation and management for the underlying ACI data center fabric.
Cisco called the new Nexus 9000 Series, which offers modular and fixed 1/10/40 Gigabit Ethernet switch configurations, the "foundational building block" for ACI. The new Nexus 9000 family runs an optimized version of Cisco's NX-OS operating system that enables zero-touch operations and what Cisco calls a new "ACI mode" that introduces the capabilities of the APIC controller.
The Cisco Nexus 9000 switch family includes the Nexus 9508, an 8-slot, compact 13 RU end-of-row switch optimized for 10/40GbE deployments; the Nexus 9300 fixed top-of-rack switches; the Nexus 9396PX, a 960G switch with 48 fixed 10GE ports; and the Nexus 93128TX, a 1.28T switch.
Cisco said it expects to extend the Nexus 9000 family in the first half of 2014 to include a four- and 16-slot system, as well as additional top-of-rack switches.
According to Cisco, ACI delivers a 75 percent total-cost-of-ownership saving compared to software-only overlays by eliminating what it called a "per VM tax" and reducing power and cooling costs by as much as 15 percent.
Other benefits of ACI, Cisco said, include slashing application deployment times from "months to minutes," along with centralized policy management of application, network, security, virtualization, compute and storage components.
ACI also leverages open APIS to enable integration with existing network automation tools, and it can work alongside Microsoft Hyper-V, Red Hat KVM, VMware vSphere and other virtualization platforms.
NEXT: Partners Confident In Cisco's SDN Strategy