VMware Exec: Most Of Our Software-Defined Networking Customers Are Running On Cisco Gear

VMware and Cisco Systems are battling for the hearts and minds of software-defined networking customers, and that competition is getting fierce.

But according to Dominick Delfino, vice president of worldwide systems engineering at VMware, a significant majority of the virtualization vendor's customers are using its SDN software, known as NSX, on Cisco networking gear.

"Quite frankly, probably about three quarters of our customers are running [NSX] on top of a Cisco network today -- they're the market leader," Delfino told CRN in an interview earlier this month.

However, Cisco is the only major networking vendor that VMware isn't partnering with on NSX. VMware's NSX ecosystem includes Arista Networks, Brocade, Cumulus Networks, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks.

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[Related: Cisco CEO Robbins Lobs Software-Defined Networking Grenade At Rival VMware]

Delfino joined VMware last September after 14 years at Cisco, where he helped promote its competing SDN technology, known as Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). He was a popular figure in the Cisco channel, and is one of the VMware executives in charge of getting partners on board with NSX.

Cisco ACI includes 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 is a software-only technology, and Delfino said this makes it more attractive to customers because they can run it without making changes to their existing networks.

"We can put NSX on top of Cisco, and customers could take advantage of network virtualization in the context of network automation or Infrastructure-as-a-Service or private cloud, or Platform-as-a-Service and development cloud," said Delfino.

Ron Flax, vice president at August Schell, a Rockville, Md.-based VMware partner, said many of his customers are buying Cisco Nexus 9000 Series switches and running NSX on them instead of ACI.

"Cisco 9000 switches is a great product that is reasonably priced, for Cisco gear," said Flax, whose company was also a partner of Nicira, the SDN startup VMware acquired in 2012 and turned into NSX.

NSX also comes with "micro-segmentation," VMware's term for the network security it provides by controlling "east-west" traffic between servers in a data center. This is another big advantage for VMware, according to Delfino.

"NSX actually provides more investment protection for some of their existing infrastructure than it does if they choose to make the transition to alternative technologies," said Delfino.

Cisco, of course, has a different view. CEO Chuck Robbins, in an interview with CRN last month, said ACI is better for enterprises 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.

Although VMware NSX versus Cisco ACI has morphed into a kind of religious debate, most industry watchers believe there will be plenty of room in the overall SDN market for both to do well with the technology.

That said, some partners that work with both VMware and Cisco believe NSX has the edge at this stage of the game -- which isn't surprising, as VMware was first to bring its product to market.

"I'm fairly certain that VMware can produce a good number of large production customers running NSX at scale in the data center. I’m not so positive Cisco could produce as many," said one solution provider executive who works with both vendors, who didn't want to be named.

Delfino, who will reach his one-year anniversary at VMware later this month, told CRN he's confident in VMware's ability to continue building NSX into a force in the SDN market.

"One huge attraction about VMware is that the culture is very, very engineering-led," said Delfino. "When you work in sales, or you work in systems engineering, at the end of the day, you have to go to market on the back of the product.

"You can only make it sound so great from a sales perspective or from a marketing perspective, but if it doesn't work as great as it sounds, you're not getting any adoption," Delfino said.