The launch of Insieme Networks has been one of the most anticipated events in the networking industry over the past 18 months or so, ever since word leaked that Cisco was funding the spin-in as its response to the software-defined networking trend. Today, Cisco ends the suspense and speculation on what the company has been working on and how it will impact SDNs specifically and the networking industry in general.

[LAUNCH:Cisco takes fight to SDNs with bold Insieme launch]

First look:Cisco/Insieme family]

1) What is Insieme Networks?

Insieme is a Cisco spin-in start-up company comparable to Andiamo Systems and Nuova Systems. They are funded by Cisco to develop products strategic to Cisco's key target markets.

2) What is Insieme developing?

Insieme is developing the Nexus 9000 line of data center and cloud switches that feature application awareness to make the network infrastructure flexible and agile for dynamic response to application needs and virtual machine workload mobility. Insieme also developed a 40G Ethernet transceiver designed to drastically lower the price of 40G optics to better compete with lower cost switches from Arista Networks, Huawei and "white box" switches based on merchant silicon.

3)  Why did Cisco choose a spin-in approach vs. developing internally or acquiring?

Cisco enlists its three best switching and silicon engineers Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero and Prem Jain to put together a team of hardware and software developers who focus intently on a product line intended to specifically insert or fortify Cisco's presence in a key strategic market. Cisco earmarks hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and eventual acquisition of this company once particular product or revenue milestones are met. Mazzola, Cafiero and Jain did this twice before with Andiamo and Nuova. This spin-in technique is apparently intended isolate engineers from the distractions and politics of Cisco internally, while focusing personnel on their work and rewarding them financially when it's complete.

[LESSON LEARNED:Cisco waited too long to address SDNs]

4) What market is Insieme addressing?

Insieme is a response to the software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) trend sweeping the industry right now. Cisco's switching and routing hardware business is the company's core competency and is highly profitable for Cisco. But there's a belief that SDNs and NFV threaten Cisco's profitability by making hardware-based functions less important in a network that is software programmable. For example, one popular implementation of SDNs proposes separating hardware control and intelligence from the hardware itself and centralizing it on a server which would communicate with the forwarding network via an open, open source and industry standard protocol like OpenFlow. This would essentially virtualize the physical network and separate its operational control and management from the physical implementation. This threatens to marginalize a key selling point of Cisco hardware intelligent network operations embedded in the network itself, vs. a hypervisor or software-based network virtualization platform allowing applications to acquire network intelligence. And with applications, hypervisors and software-based controllers managing network functions, network hardware itself can be relegated to low cost, commodity, generic "white box" platforms based on off-the-shelf, non-specialized silicon available industrywide.  

5) How will Insieme address this trend?

Insieme's Nexus 9000 is a hardware-based response to SDNs and NFV. The switches contain merchant and custom silicon for both basic network virtualization OpenFlow and VXLAN and Cisco proprietary application-centric networking, or what the company calls "Application Centric Infrastructure" (ACI). Cisco wants the network to be application aware vs. the applications to be network aware. Cisco has been very upfront that ACI is not SDN, or a software-only network virtualization overlay. Instead, it is hardware designed to equally provision both physical and virtual resources in data centers and cloud networks no matter what hardware or hypervisor those resources are based on.

6) How is this different from what VMware or the OpenFlow proponents propose?

VMware, the leader in server virtualization, is branching into network virtualization with its NSX product. NSX is a software-based network virtualization overlay that enable network control from a VMware hypervisor. It is the direct opposite of what Cisco proposes and a direct competitor to Insieme's ACI and Nexus 9000 approach. Many other vendors, like HP, are supporting OpenFlow and its SDN/network virtualization implementation of a decoupled data and control plane. Cisco/Insieme's Nexus 9000 will also support OpenFlow and the OpenDaylight open source controller, but only in merchant silicon-based "standalone" mode on the Nexus 9000. Full function ACI mode can only be achieved using Insieme's custom ASICs in the Nexus 9000.

7) Cisco founded OpenDaylight. How big of a role does the OpenDaylight controller play in the Insieme ACI and Nexus 9000 line?

None in ACI. Insieme developed its own controller for ACI-mode networking, which is achieved by using Insieme's custom ASICs. In "standalone" mode, the Nexus 9000 with merchant silicon in this case, Broadcom's Trident II can support OpenDaylight, OpenFlow and other open source software for SDNs, NFV and network programmability and virtualization. Juniper plans to virtualize many network functions as VMs on x86 server hardware and open source its SDN controller. The company plans to make money on software licenses and SDN systems integration work, in addition to selling programmable routers and switches.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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