Cisco Extends ACI -- But Not All Of It -- To Legacy Nexus Environments

Cisco Friday made a number of updates to its Application-Centric Infrastructure SDN platform, including a new family of Nexus switches, integration between ACI and Cisco UCS, and new options that will let customers on older Nexus platforms leverage select ACI features.

At its launch in November, ACI software was only able to run on Cisco's new Nexus 9000 data center switches. But now, Cisco is making certain features of ACI available to customers who are running prior-generation Nexus switches, including the Nexus 7000, 6000, 5000, 4000 and 2000 Series.

According to Cisco Vice President of Sales Ishmael Limkakeng, Cisco is specifically extending its ACI policy model --a core piece of the ACI infrastructure that lets application policies automate the network, rather than the other away around -- to customers running Nexus 2000 through Nexus 7000 deployments.

[Related: Cisco Reports Better-Than-Expected Q3, Says ACI 'Gaining Significant Market Traction' ]

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"What we are talking about today is being able to take the policy model -- which is a critical piece of ACI -- and extending that benefit to physical and virtual workloads that are attached to an existing Nexus pod," Limkakeng told CRN.

Customers running legacy Nexus switches can extend this ACI policy model to either physical or virtual workloads, Cisco said, by deploying its Application-Centric Virtual Switch. AVS is a virtual edge switch designed for the ACI fabric and, like the fabric itself, is controlled via Cisco's Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), which Limkakeng said launches this summer.

Limkakeng said deploying the ACI policy model, even on older Nexus switches, will allow users to consistently enforce and define application policies, as those apps move across physical and virtual infrastructures.

Customers using this model, however, won't have the full-blown feature set of ACI. They won't, for example, have optimized forwarding or the same level of network visibilitythat’s provided by the Nexus 9000, Limkakeng said,since those features are only available via the 9000 hardware.

An executive from one Cisco Gold partner, who asked not to be named, said it's a good move on Cisco's part to make ACI available for older Nexus environments, but the fact that it's not a full-blown ACI feature set could lead to confusion in the market. He said, at this point, Cisco's messaging doesn't seem entirely clear.

"There are already functionality differences in terms of what protocols are supported between the Nexus 7000 and the 9000, and that's fine. But we need to be really clear about this 'ACI Light,' " the partner told CRN. "What does that mean exactly? What exactly is going into the 7000 and what makes Cisco think that functionality is transferable for install base clients? And why not the full-blown version [of ACI]? It's dangerous. We're going to need to describe all this to customers.

"The faster they can get particulars out, the better," he said.

Cisco's updates come just two days after Cisco CEO John Chambers told analysts on a conference call discussing the company's third-quarter results that ACI is "gaining significant market traction" and, in some cases, is even displacing VMware's NSX platform.

"Many of you come from financial institutions. So you might have seen some small startup and VMware combined because they have been out there for five-plus years," Chambers said. "We’re taking almost all of those back. The momentum feels very, very good on it and I think you'll just see us knock them off one after the other."

On the conference call, Chambers said 175 customers have bought the Nexus 9000 since its launch. But what isn't clear is how many of those customers plan to use the switch in what Cisco calls "ACI mode" and how many plan to use it in "stand-alone mode."

According to Cisco, ACI mode is needed to take "full advantage" of ACI infrastructure automation. In stand-alone mode, the Nexus 9000 runs Cisco's NX-OS software, like a traditional Nexus switch, and can't support ACI deployments without a software upgrade to ACI mode.

"Some customers will stay in stand-alone mode and be perfectly happy with it, but many of them are doing this with the intention of looking to deploy the controller and the whole ACI model," Limkakeng said.

NEXT: ACI-UCS Integration, New Nexus Switches

Cisco also said Friday that version 5.0 of UCS Director, Cisco's unified converged infrastructure management solution for its UCS, VCE Vblock, Cisco FlexPod and EMC VSPEX environments, is being integrated with APIC.

"When we are talking about ACI, we are not worried just about the network provisioning piece. We want to make sure customers can address their broader environment, and UCS Director and its integration with APIC is a very helpful piece of that," Limkakeng said.

The integration, he continued, will give customers a single point for managing ACI alongside their converged infrastructure, letting them administer compute, network, virtualization and storage from one interface. Limkakeng said more integration details would come over the next few quarters.

Cisco is integrating ACI with other converged infrastructure solutions, such as FlexPod and Vblock. Cisco said reference designs for FlexPod Datacenter with Nexus 9000 Series are available now, and that VCE customers today can order Vblock with Cisco Nexus 9000 switches.

Cisco, meanwhile, also expanded its Nexus 9000 switch lineup to include three new models: the Nexus 9336PQ fixed switch, targeted at smaller ACI deployments; the Nexus 9396TG top-of-rack switch designed for either traditional tiered architectures or ACI; and the N9K-X9736PQ line card for enabling an Application-Centric Modular Spine for the already announced Nexus 9500 platform.

Cisco also said it is extending Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN) support across the Nexus 3000, 5000, 6000, 7000 and 9000 switches.

On the call with analysts, Chambers said he expects the San Jose, Calif., company to return to growth over the next few quarters after three consecutive quarters of reporting a loss. For its third fiscal quarter, ended April 26, Cisco reported revenue of $11.5 billion, down 5.5 percent from the $12.2 billion it reported during the same period last year.

Cisco's core routing and switching units were down 10 percent and 6 percent year over year, respectively, and Chambers said it will take "at least one or probably two quarters" before Nexus 9000 adoption gets Cisco's high-end switching business "growing well."