EMC, VMware Team With Cisco Rival Arista As Software-Defined Networking Battle Heats Up

EMC and VMware are using Arista Networks, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based switch vendor and Cisco Systems rival, for key parts of their cloud and converged infrastructure portfolio, sources familiar with the matter told CRN recently.

EMC and VMware are using switches from Arista in Project Mystic, the code name for an EMC-branded converged infrastructure appliance that's currently in development, sources told CRN.

VMware also is using Arista switches in vCloud Hybrid Service, its public cloud infrastructure-as-a-service, sources said.

Project Mystic, which CRN first reported on in March, is EMC's bid to compete with startups such as Nutanix and SimpliVity in the "hyper-converged" appliance market, where server, storage, networking and virtualization are software-defined and run on industry-standard hardware. Project Mystic also features VMware's NSX software-defined networking and VSAN storage technology, sources said.

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[Related: Sources: VMware Building 'Project Mystic' Converged Infrastructure Appliance For EMC ]

As VMware and Cisco engage in an increasingly heated battle over the future of software-defined networking, EMC and VMware have aligned with Arista to reduce their dependence on Cisco technology, according to sources familiar with the situation.

VMware's horse in the software-defined networking space is NSX, which is based on technology gained in its 2012 acquisition of Nicira. Cisco is pitching a combination of software and proprietary hardware in its SDN offering, called Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI).

One source with knowledge of the technology described Arista switches as a "perfect complement" to VMware NSX because Arista has opened its APIs to work with NSX as part of the vendors' existing partnership. Arista and VMware also collaborated on the VXLAN cloud protocol, and Arista's Extensible Operating System (EOS) software is integrated with VMware NSX.

"NSX can, in theory, have some understanding of the hardware platform it is running upon when running on Arista. Cisco does not provide that level of communication with NSX," the source told CRN.

A VMware spokesperson declined to comment on whether Arista switches are part of Project Mystic and vCloud Hybrid Service, saying only that the latter "runs on industry- standard hardware that has been tested and approved by VMware Labs."

A spokesperson for EMC, which owns 80 percent of VMware, described claims of EMC's work with Arista as "speculation" and "way off base," but declined to comment further.

Arista, founded in 2005, has emerged as a top Cisco competitor in the low-latency switch market. Last November, Arista unveiled its 7000X Series switches just two days before Cisco launched its Insieme SDN spin-in and its ACI technology, which competes with NSX.

Arista filed for a $200 million IPO in March and is led former Cisco executive Jayshree Ullal, who used to run Cisco's $10 billion data center, switching and services group. Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is chairman of Arista's board and its chief development officer.

Sources told CRN that VMware's use of Arista switches in Project Mystic and vCloud Hybrid Service is sure to add further tension to the already-strained EMC-Cisco relationship.

"The word 'Arista' inspires deep emotion with executives at Cisco," one source familiar with Cisco's thinking told CRN. "This will not be taken lightly, and I think the word 'nuclear' would be an appropriate description of how I suspect Cisco will react."

A Cisco spokesperson declined comment, citing company policy of not responding to "rumors or speculation." A spokesperson for Arista declined comment because the company is in its quiet period in advance of its IPO.

NEXT: What This Could Mean For The EMC-Cisco Relationship

Meanwhile, EMC also is using Lenovo servers in its Project Mystic appliance, sources said. This isn't too surprising since EMC uses Lenovo's enterprise servers in some of its storage systems as part of a strategic agreement the companies formed in 2012. Lenovo didn't respond to a request for confirmation.

This week at its EMC World event, EMC will talk in more detail about its "federation," in which it is pulling in VMware, RSA and Pivotal closer than it has in the past. Sources said the EMC Federation is another sign that EMC wants to push in-house technologies over ones it used to deliver in partnership with other vendors.

However, EMC and Cisco generate a ton of revenue through their partnership and there is no sign that VMware's work with Arista will cause the companies to cut ties, sources told CRN.

Cisco's Unified Computing System, which combines servers and networking, is the predominant option for EMC's VSPEX private cloud reference architecture and for vBlocks, the flagship product of the Cisco-EMC-VMware VCE joint venture.

In a report last month, research firm IDC said the worldwide market for what it calls "integrated infrastructure" accounted for $4 billion in sales during 2013, up nearly 99 percent from the year before. EMC and Cisco account for nearly 19 percent of this market and together generated $749.6 million in 2013, which is up 481 percent from the year before, according to IDC.

What's more, VCE vBlock sales are growing like gangbusters after exiting 2013 at a $1.8 billion run rate, EMC said last month on its first-quarter earnings call.

There's a lot at stake in the EMC-Cisco relationship, but sources told CRN that Cisco has some cards of its own to play.

Cisco could offer its own Project Mystic competitor by combining its server and networking technology with its Invicta flash storage, its Sourcefire security software and its Cloupia technology for connecting all these resources to VMware or OpenStack clouds, sources said.

Sources said Cisco also could acquire a storage vendor such as NetApp, or add hypervisor technology by buying Citrix Systems. Both scenarios have been the subject of industry scuttlebutt for the better part of the past two years.

But in the chess game that's unfolding between EMC and VMware on one side, and Cisco on the other, these sorts of blockbuster moves are looking more plausible, sources said.

JOSEPH F. KOVAR contributed to this story.