Cisco CEO Robbins Lobs Software-Defined Networking Grenade At Rival VMware

Newly appointed Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins isn't wasting any time stoking competitive fires in the software-defined networking space, where his company is engaged in a steel cage match with rival VMware.

Robbins, in an interview with CRN on Thursday, said Cisco's SDN play -- called Application Centric Infrastructure -- is a better fit for enterprises than VMware's NSX technology because it can scale beyond the data center and into the rest of the network.

"We can actually put ACI in, we can implement it, we can drive it to scale, and I don’t think that VMware has proven that they have that capability," Robbins told CRN.

[Related: Cisco's Chuck Robbins On VMware's Shortcomings, The HP Split And The Future Of Cisco-SimpliVity]

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Cisco ACI uses a mix of software, Nexus 9000 switches and its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), which manages, creates, stores and enforces policies on the network. VMware NSX, meanwhile, is a software-only technology.

Robbins said Cisco added 330 ACI customers in its latest quarter, after closing its previous quarter with 585. The San Jose, Calif.-based vendor also added some 1,400 new Nexus 9000 customers this quarter, he said.

"I think customers believe in what we're doing and they're buying into the vision," Robbins said.

Robbins told CRN that Cisco has now trained almost 700 channel partners to sell and deploy ACI. VMware has more than 300 partners that have gone through and achieved its NSX network virtualization competency, a spokesman for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based vendor said.

The VMware spokesman declined to comment on Robbins' remarks.

Robert Keblusek, chief technology officer at Sentinel Technologies, a Downers Grove, Ill.-based firm that partners with Cisco and VMware, said his customers are more interested in ACI than NSX at this stage.

"ACI has a really strong scalability story and really strong application integration," Keblusek said. "This makes ACI more of a reach for traditional networking engineers to embrace, but it is a very large-scale, multitenant-based approach to software-defined networking."

"I don’t personally see the same with NSX. It seems to be far more data center-centric. I haven't seen it put in place to any scale yet," said Keblusek.

VMware executives say that NSX is growing well, too. Chief Operating Officer Carl Eschenbach, on last month's second-quarter earnings call, said VMware now has 700 paying NSX customers, compared with 150 at the same time last year.

"We believe the number of production customers using NSX far outweighs that of any competitor," Eschenbach said on the call.

Dominick Delfino, who joined VMware as vice president of worldwide systems engineering last September after 14 years at Cisco, took a jab at his former employer in May by claiming that NSX was generating more excitement and enthusiasm among customers.

VMware is now pitching NSX as a network security technology in its efforts to get more enterprises on board, and it has inked NSX partnerships with Palo Alto Networks, Intel Security and Check Point Software. More recently, VMware has been touting the combination of NSX and Airwatch, its mobile device management technology.

Bill Schell, president of August Schell, a Rockville, Md.-based VMware partner that has done several large NSX deployments, told CRN he hasn't encountered any scalability issues with NSX.

Schell told CRN he prefers the targeted approach VMware is taking with NSX channel training. "They are being very strategic with which partners they spin up, and the training is extremely thorough," he said.

While Cisco versus VMware is a compelling battle, many industry watchers believe there will be plenty of SDN business for these and other vendors. The worldwide SDN market will grow from $21.78 billion currently to $77.18 billion by 2020, according to a report from Research and Markets in May.

An executive from a national solution provider and longtime partner of Cisco and VMware told CRN that customer interest and sales are virtually identical between the two SDN technologies.

"If you had asked me in January which vendor was ahead, I would've said VMware, but right now we're seeing equally strong adoption of both NSX and ACI," said the executive, who didn't want to be named.