HP On Cisco ACI: It's Not What Customers Are Looking For

On the heels of Cisco's software-defined-networking (SDN) launch event last week, Hewlett-Packard said it feels more confident than ever it can beat Cisco in the SDN space, and that it's already prepping its partners to ensure that that happens.

"Having seen [Cisco's] announcement, it confirms what we anticipated, which is that Cisco is building yet another set of boxes, and those boxes will sit in a proprietary, enclosed environment," said Bethany Mayer, senior vice president and general manager of HP networking. "And, aside from being a proprietary environment, it will also cost customers a lot of money to move or transition to essentially what should have been happening long ago in Cisco environments, which is more automation and management."

Mayer spoke to CRN after Cisco unveiled its new application-centric infrastructure (ACI), the networking giant's answer to the buzzed-about software-defined-networking trend, along with plans to acquire its SDN-focused "spin-in" Insieme Networks.

[Related: 7 Tough Questions For Cisco, Insieme Execs After ACI Launch ]

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Cisco said at the launch of ACI -- a data centric fabric comprised of software, a new Cisco controller, and a next-generation line of Nexus switches -- that ACI is a more scalable and easily managed alternative to the bulk of SDN technologies on the market today.

But some Cisco rivals, including HP, aren't convinced.

"From our perspective, we don't think that's really what customers are looking for," Mayer said.

HP's argument against Cisco ACI is that ACI "locks" customers into proprietary Cisco gear, denying them what HP called "the economic and game-changing simplification, automation and application development benefits promised by SDN."

"When I say it's a closed environment I mean it's a Cisco controller, with Cisco gear, using Cisco proprietary protocols to access that gear. That's proprietary," Mayer said. "In the world of SDN, we have embraced OpenFlow and other open-standards-based protocols in order to access our switches and reconfigure and program them. That is very, very different, and that means that other third-party controllers can also interact and program with our switches, if the customer desires that."

Glenn Conley, president and CEO of MetroPark Communications, a St. Louis- based solution provider, said that HP's open strategy around SDN could help pique the interest of customers who may have turned their backs on HP networking in the past.

"HP is certainly trying to find their own way back to genuineness somehow. Maybe a more open strategy will pique some interest. After years of being orphaned on the networking side and seeing so many decisions that just greatly upset both the channel and end users, maybe having a more open software play makes sense," Conley said. "Our customers simply don't look at HP as a great networking provider anymore. We have seen many of our SMB customers jump away from HP networking solutions for several years now, and HP really has made a big effort with us to help stem that tide."

NEXT: HP's SDN Partner Strategy

Cisco and Insieme, for their part, responded to HP's statements about ACI being a closed architecture, and called it, instead, "extremely open."

"From an open ecosystem standpoint, we will work with a wide variety of systems, hypervisors, orchestration management, as well as layer-4 to -7 services," Ishmael Limkakeng, formerly vice president of marketing at Insieme, said at the ACI launch event Wednesday. "We will publish the APIs in the data model to be able to work with open controllers. So there is a very open environment, where our customers are not locked in."

HP's SDN portfolio consists of its FlexFabric physical and virtual switches, Virtualized Services Router (VSR), and Virtual Application Networks (VAN) SDN Controller, which became generally available last month and also supports VMware's NSX network virtualization platform. Mayer said partners will play a critical role in HP's SDN battle against Cisco. HP recently rolled out its SDN Learning Journey program for partners, and said more than 10,000 solution providers have participated in the online program to date. A formal SDN certification will be included in the HP Partner One program by the end of 2013.

In addition, Mayer said partners can ask HP for a full SDN demo kit that lets solution providers demonstrate the functionality of HP's FlexFabric switches and SDN controller.

Cisco told CRN its partner training initiatives for ACI will be rolled out in a "phased approach," the first phase of which will include 42 in-person training sessions in North America focused on the Nexus 9000. Cisco said more than 1,000 partners already have signed up.

Mayer said what really sets HP's partner strategy apart, as it relates to SDN, is its focus on applications. Slated for deployment in the first half of 2014 is an HP SDN App Store that can be accessed through HP's VAN SDN Controller. It will host applications from both HP, such as the HP Sentinel network security application, and HP technology partners, including VMware, Microsoft, Citrix and ShoreTel.

HP solution providers, however, also are encouraged to build and submit applications to sell through the HP SDN App Store. Mayer said HP has an SDN Developer Kit (SDK) that partners can use to build their own applications. Partners also can find training materials related to application development within the SDN Learning and Certification program.

In what she called a "rich opportunity" for partners, Mayer said she expects solution providers to find a sweet spot for SDN applications in vertical markets like retail.

"What you will see is there will be partners with an SDN practice that will be then able to both utilize our technology partners' solutions … but they will also create their own SDN applications for customer-specific environments," Mayer said.

John Barker, president of Versatile Communications, a Marlborough, Mass.- based solution provider and HP Networking partner, said he has "definitely" noticed HP putting more muscle behind its partner enablement strategies around SDN.

"I do believe they are all in with SDN, and, as a partner, I am seeing them step up," Barker said, noting that he has already tapped into HP online tutorial and other partners resources related to SDN.

Barker also said that, while his customers are still early on in terms of SDN adoption, he is confident that HP has what it takes to compete, and win, against Cisco.

"I think they can [win] because I think the advantage that HP has in the networking space is that they have always had a really good value proposition. I think that reducing overall costs, increased functionality and less complexity is kind of what HP is building their story on, and I think that a lot of that flies in the face of what Cisco has necessarily done," Barker said.