Solution providers partnering with both Cisco and VMware in the software-defined networking (SDN) market are more likely to recommend Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) solution to customers than they are VMware's NSX, according to a recent channel survey from Baird Equity Research.
Results from an August survey of 60 solution providers showed that the majority of respondents, 43 percent, would recommend Cisco's Nexus 9000 switches and its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) -- the two key components of Cisco ACI -- over VMware NSX.
Twenty-two percent of partners, meanwhile, said they would recommend Cisco's Nexus 9000 with VMware NSX running on top of the switches as a single, integrated solution. Only 2 percent of partners said they would recommend NSX running on white-box or non-Cisco networking gear.
In total, 75 percent of the respondents said they would recommend at least the Nexus 9000 switches, running some form of SDN software or controller on top.
"We do really hear the most about Cisco and VMware in this market, and I think for a lot of these partners VMware on top of Cisco would be one option and Cisco's APIC on top of Cisco would be the other," said Jayson Noland, managing director and senior analyst at Baird. "A lot of [partners] have told us that VMware is winning the mind-share battle and that VMware … can articulate [the value of SDN] better than Cisco. But Cisco is the infrastructure company that everybody trusts. A lot of the channel -- and a lot of buyers -- are just uncomfortable having white-box or non-Cisco gear underneath an SDN controller."
Partners via the VCE alliance, VMware and Cisco are waging a war in the networking market with their competing, and very different approaches, to SDN. VMware NSX, introduced last August and based heavily on the technology VMware acquired through its 2012 acquisition of Nicira, is a network software overlay that can run on a variety of networking gear.
Cisco's ACI, meanwhile, involves a mix of Cisco hardware -- namely, its Nexus 9000 switches -- and its APIC controller software. ACI was launched in November by Cisco's SDN-focused spin-in, Insieme Networks, which has since been fully acquired by Cisco.
Cisco has openly bashed VMware's approach to SDN with NSX. Executives from the San Jose, Calif.-based networking leader have said that the software-only approach to SDN that's supported by platforms like NSX are harder to scale and make customer environments more complex by requiring them to separately manage a software layer running on top of their underlying physical infrastructure.
Cisco CEO John Chambers, in a recent interview with CRN, dubbed software-only SDN solutions like NSX "very costly [and] very difficult to do problem determination." He also said this software model causes customers to "move very slowly" and that it "often doesn't scale."
"What Application Centric Infrastructure does is it embraces software and [delivers] your advantages of SDN without the disadvantages," Chambers said.
Sources told CRN in May that VMware is going to get more aggressive disputing Cisco's criticisms of NSX.
VMware said last week that NSX already has been adopted by 200 customers since hitting the VMware price list in June. Cisco, meanwhile, said during a conference call with analysts in May that 175 customers had adopted the Nexus 9000 to date. Its APIC controller, however, just started shipping last month, so it's not yet clear how many of those Nexus 9000 customers plan to deploy ACI.
Cisco could announce more ACI customer wins during its fourth quarter and fiscal year 2014 earnings call on Aug. 13.
Bill Smeltzer, CTO of Focus Technology Solutions, a Seabrook, N.H.-based Cisco and VMware partner, said SDN adoption, in general, still seems "really early on." He has, however, seen more customers "kicking the tires" with VMware NSX than Cisco ACI, a trend he attributed to the fact that ACI starter packages for proof of concepts start at $250,000.
"What's shipping [from Cisco] is shipping for somewhere around $250,000, and it's being geared toward proof-of-concept. I haven't seen a lot of customers looking to kick the tires on it," Smeltzer said. "I have seen, though, some customers wanting to play around a little bit with the VMware NSX, but that's just software and there are free download trials. So it's people kicking the tires vs. saying, 'We're serious enough to pony up a quarter of a million dollars.'"
An executive from another Cisco and VMware solution provider, who asked not to be named, agreed that customers are still in the early phases of adoption, but said he is confident in ACI's ability to become the leading technology in SDN.
"ACI, I think, is a brilliant answer to the SDN challenge for customers. It's not very mature yet, but I think Cisco made a very smart move in terms of how they responded to that challenge. The partners, we were asking them for a long time, 'What's your answer to this?' You've got other players like Arista and folks in the market with startup efforts around SDN, which really boils down to switches that are programmable,'" the partner said. "[Cisco is] trying to take it -- and I think they may successfully take it -- to that application policy, API interface level."
Noland, for his part, said the Baird survey also suggested "the hype is ahead of the reality" in terms of SDN adoption in the channel. Nearly half of the respondents, however, said they expect SDN adoption to happen on a much broader scale by 2016.
PUBLISHED AUG. 12, 2014