Partners See Widening Cisco-VMware Rift

Cisco and VMware are going to great lengths to paint a picture of the two companies working together to bring software-defined networking to customers.

In fact, VMware Wednesday went so far as to pledge allegiance to the new Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in a Cisco press release as one of 20 "leading companies" supporting ACI.

This even after VMware last year spent $1.26 billion to buy software-defined networking innovator Nicira and introduced its own software-defined networking platform at VMworld this summer without Cisco's endorsement.

[Related: Partners: Cisco A 'Serious Contender' In SDN Market With Insieme Launch ]

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Beneath the surface, partners are buzzing about a battle that is starting to be waged in the sales trenches between the two respective market leaders for the hearts and minds of IT buyers.

"It grows more and more combative every day even though neither has had a real functional product or [software-defined networking] solution yet released to sell through the channel," said an executive for a top Cisco-VMware partner who did not want to be identified. "Just imagine if and when these things are actually being sold into the commercial and enterprise spaces how bad it will get."

Another partner executive, who did not want to be identified, said Cisco's bid for data center dominance has put the networking leader into a battle with all the major longtime data center players including VMware and EMC, which owns VMware. "Cisco is EMC's biggest competitor right now," said the partner executive. "To scale applications you are going to either buy a ton of [Cisco Unified Compute Systems] or you can build a virtual SAN using EMC products. Cisco is building out a world where everybody lives off UCS. Cisco is building software-defined networking, software-defined storage and flash with Whiptail -- all with UCS. All the major vendors are scrambling to see how their solutions can work together and coexist together."

Another partner, who did not want to be identified, said the SDN battle is coming down to a philosophical war between VMware and Cisco on whether SDN will be a pure software solution or a software solution with hardware that leverages Cisco ASICs. "I personally believe having a lot of that intelligence being put into ASICs like Cisco has done is the true game changer," said the partner. "Cisco just trumped [VMware's] Nicira."

Rob Lloyd, president of development and sales for the $49 billion networking market leader, in response to a question from CRN at the ACI introduction said customers see Cisco's support for both physical networked resources and virtual networked IT resources as a "game changer" versus VMware.

"When we do meet with customers and take them through the material you saw today they say, 'Wow, if I could have that policy implication on the applications I originate in the data center and then extend that out to the policy when I get on the network on the access layer and enforce that policy end to end,' they say -- 'Wow, that's a game changer,'" said Lloyd.

NEXT: Cisco's CTO Trash Talks VMware's SDN Offering

Cisco's Lloyd's comments mirror those of Cisco Chief Technology and Strategy Officer Padmasree Warrior, who criticized VMware's NSX in a blog post, calling it a "software-only approach to network virtualization" that places "significant constraints" on customers.

"It doesn't scale, and it fails to provide full real-time visibility of both physical and virtual infrastructure," wrote Warrior of VMware NSX. "In addition this approach does not provide key capabilities such as multi-hypervisor support, integrated security, systems point-of-view or end-to-end telemetry for application placement and troubleshooting. This loosely-coupled approach forces the user to tie multiple 3rd party components together adding cost and complexity in day-to-day operations as well as throughout the network lifecycle. Users are forced to address multiple management points and maintain version control for each of the independent components. Software network virtualization treats physical and virtual infrastructure as separate entities, and denies customers a common policy framework and common operational model for management, orchestration and monitoring"

Lloyd also singled out Cisco's ability to work in a multivendor hypervisor environment versus VMware. "We are hypervisor independent," he said. "We are seeing customers now increasingly running multiple hypervisors, and that's a trend we expect to see continue. We have been extremely successful selling UCS and selling together with VMware into vSphere environments. We are seeing HyperV and we are seeing KVM deployments across our customers, within both service provider and the enterprise. So multiple hypervisors or being hypervisor-agnotics to deploy these benefits is another difference that we see."

If that wasn't enough, Insieme Networks Vice President of Marketing Ishmael Limkakeng said the unification of physical and virtual layers is a big differentiator versus VMware. "When you look at customers' environments, they are not just virtual, and they are not just physical; they have applications that reside in both," said Limkakeng. "If you want a common view and a common policy and you want to solve the problems of application agility, you have to address both. This addresses both. [VMware] is primarily in the virtual space."

Some partners say pitting Cisco versus VMware misses the mark with regard to the big opportunity for partners to help customers climb the software-defined networking ladder.

Jamie Shepard, regional vice president of North America for Lumenate Technologies, No.122 on the SP500 with $170 million in annual sales, said as far as he is concerned, Cisco's ACI strategy is "100 percent complimentary" to VMware. "This announcement represents Cisco's strong belief in a highly virtualized 100 percent-software infrastructure," he said. "You can't do this without virtualization. It is a compliment to VMware and OpenStack."

Shepard said he expects Lumenate's sales for virtualized software-defined solutions incorporating both Cisco and VMware technologies will grow 40 percent over the next three to five years.

"This is just starting," said Shepard. "Rolling out software-defined anything requires a lot of upfront consulting work, strong project management and flawless execution. It will take time and the customer needs to buy into the level of effort required. If you are in the field with customers, you can see where both VMware and Cisco work and how they need to work together."

NEXT: Partner Says ACI Is Another Brilliant Move By Cisco CEO Chambers

Lumenate's Shepard complimented Cisco CEO John Chambers for what he called another "absolutely brilliant move" with the introduction of application-centric infrastructure to dominate the data center.

"Chambers has made all the right moves," said Shepard. "Today, Cisco works with all major hardware vendors including EMC, NetApp and HP to gain UCS adoption in the data center. UCS is now the standard in a lot of application compute models. That took place in just three short years. That is unheard of. Chambers then took it to another level when Cisco acquired Composite Software to focus on data virtualization, which brings you higher up the stack. And now the new Application Centric Infrastructure strategy is one where Cisco is taking both software-defined and hardware-defined networking to a higher level to directly address application requirements. This is synonymous with the definition of a scalable, flexible agile private cloud strategy."

Darin Haines, chief technology officer and senior vice president of consulting services for MCPc, No 89 on the SP500 with $262 million in annual sales, said he sees a tremendous opportunity for MCPc to leverage its Anyplace Workspace solutions aimed at allowing customers to get their applications from the desktop to the smartphone in the most efficient manner.

"We are incredibly excited," said Haines. "We have been waiting for a while to see what Cisco's response would be to software-defined networking, and now we know it is right in line with our MCPc vision of the Anyplace Workspace. Like the Anyplace Workspace, Cisco ACI with the Nexus 9000 is all about being able to deliver applications in the most efficient manner possible."

Cisco is combining software-defined networking with the physical infrastructure in the form of the Nexus 9000 switch, which Cisco and partners are touting as a means of providing a safe path to software-defined networking, said Haines. "That is going to be a tremendous opportunity for us," he said. "As we talk to clients about the Nexus 9000, it's a great opportunity to provide true investment protection to our joint clients."

Haines sees the Nexus 9000 combined with Cisco ACI as the next big game changer for Cisco partners. "As the competitors have been out there formulating and going to market with SDN, Cisco has been quietly taking the legacy they have built from a networking perspective and have quietly dissected and put together what true SDN means. I agree with John Chambers. At the end of the day, this is going to be the foundational platform that can carry our joint clients for the next decade."

Kevin McLaughlin contributed to this story.