Partners: Time Is Nigh For Cisco-VMware Software-Defined Networking Tech Integration

With Cisco Systems talking with VMware about a deeper and more meaningful software-defined networking relationship, could official integration of their respective technologies be far behind?

That's a question many partners are pondering now that customers have begun deploying both VMware NSX and Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in their data center environments.

Until recently, customers viewed their SDN purchasing decision as an either-or proposition between NSX and ACI, mainly because the former is software-only and the latter also includes Cisco's Nexus 9000 switches and its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC).

[Related: Why Enterprises Are Deploying Cisco And VMware's Software-Defined Networking Together And Loving It]

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Patrick Cronin, principal at Kovarus, a VMware and Cisco partner in San Ramon, Calif., said NSX and ACI can coexist and work well in customers' environments.

"NSX provides rich virtual switch functionality, abstracting the network using a controller and overlays," said Cronin. "ACI melds both hardware and software into a policy-driven network infrastructure built around the needs of specific applications."

VMware positions NSX as a way to ease network management and speed service provisioning, and as a network security technology. Cisco's ACI pitch focuses on hardware-based security, as well as automating IT tasks, speeding data center application deployments, and monitoring virtual machine traffic.

Ryan Marsyla, principal SDN technologist at Trace3, an Irvine, Calif.-based Cisco and VMware partner, said customers would benefit if Cisco and VMware were to align and integrate ACI and NSX. "The obvious benefit would be the ease of client adoption, [and] clarity around which to support. This would eliminate debates between the network and virtualization teams," he said.

Other potential benefits of SDN integration range from network underlay visibility when deploying NSX -- which could significantly ease troubleshooting -- to centralized management, policy enforcement and scale, Marsyla said.

However, there are some hurdles to customers using both technologies. While ACI and NSX can provide "a powerful policy, compliance and highly scalable network," the costs of buying both can be prohibitive for some customers, according to Cronin.

"If a customer would pay for ACI and NSX, they’d get the Cadillac of networks. But that Caddy would cost a pretty penny," said Cronin.

Ron Flax, vice president at August Schell, a Rockville, Md.-based VMware partner, doesn't see NSX-ACI integration as a near-term play. "I don't yet see a world where you have integration between VMware NSX Controller [the vendor's SDN management system] and control ACI through that," he said.

While it remains to be seen whether ACI-plus-NSX becomes a full blown trend, partners that work with both vendors said the trash talk that began after VMware acquire SDN startup Nicira in 2012 has subsided somewhat since Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins took the helm last July.

Robbins, in an interview with CRN on Thursday, suggested that Cisco may be open to the idea of working more closely with VMware to make it easier for customers to jointly deploy their technologies.

"As it relates to VMware, I think our teams are talking about where there might be points that balance the competitive nature of the partnership, but also meet perhaps some of the emerging customer asks. So I think it that's to be determined," Robbins told CRN.