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Cisco competitors say Nexus 9000 brings closed hardware to an open software game

Cisco's network competitors VMware, Arista and HP predictably found holes in this week's launch of the Insieme Networks product line and strategy.

Cisco acquired its remaining interest in Insieme for up to $863 million, and unveiled the spin-in's Nexus 9000 switches, Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) strategy, ACI-optimized NX-OS operating system, and Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC).  The Nexus 9000 hardware supports both custom Insieme ASICs and merchant silicon in the form of Broadcom's Trident II chipset.

The merchant silicon-based "standalone" mode of Nexus 9000 is intended to appeal to those opting for that hardware and open source software. Cisco is making some of Insieme's software available through the open source community.

[FIRST LOOK:Cisco/Insieme family]

The custom ASIC-based ACI mode of the Nexus 9000 provides full ACI fabric features managed by the APIC controller. Observers believe ACI mode will appeal mostly to Cisco's enterprise installed base while the standalone mode will be targeted primarily at cloud providers interested in low cost hardware and open source software.

Insieme is Cisco's response to the software-defined networking trend permeating the industry and its perceived threat to Cisco's very lucrative dominance through its availability in open source software and commodity hardware.

With Insieme, Cisco is looking to combat the software overlay approach to network virtualization provided by VMware and its NSX platform; and low priced, extensible merchant silicon-based data center and cloud switching delivered by companies like Arista Networks, and start-up Cumulus Networks with its Linux network operating system.

VMware, which has significant customer overlap with Cisco, actually sees Insieme validating the purpose of NSX and the goals behind the company's software-defined data center strategy; where they diverge is in the approach.

"The difference is in how we solve the problem" of a more agile, application responsive data center, says Chris King, vice president of marketing in VMware's networking and security business unit. "Cisco has chosen more proprietary hardware."

"All of that agility, visibility can be done in a software-define data center and a hardware-defined data center," says Brad Hedlund, engineering architect in VMware's networking and security business unit. "We have all of the aspects of agility at the speed of software."

Hedlund says VMware's NSX network virtualization platform could actually help joint customers migrate from the older Cisco Nexus switches to the new Nexus 9000 line. Cisco has said that the Nexus 2000 fabric extenders will be supported in ACI, as will the Nexus 7000 as a data center interconnect and fabric "pod."

Other Nexus and Catalyst switches will serve their various purposes, but Cisco has technology migration programs in place for customers looking to move to the Nexus 9000 and ACI, which Cisco claims delivers a 75% reduction in total cost of ownership over a merchant silicon-based infrastructure running a software-based network virtualization overlay when upgrading from 10G to 40G.That has VMware scratching its head.

"We're a little bit confused on how they got there," says King. "There are some pieces missing in that comparison."

And Cisco's openness claims regarding ACI are not unique either, Hedlund says. "Open interfaces is just table stakes," he says.

Analysts believe Cisco's ACI may be most challenged in those sites where VMware hypervisors have been entrenched for years for server virtualization.

"The big question will be how customers that have virtualized their data centers, typically with VMware's hypervisor, and that are moving relatively quickly to private/hybrid cloud will respond," says IDC's Brad Casemore. "Much will depend on whether those organizations have reorganized their internal IT constituencies to facilitate the journey to cloud. Are the server/virtualization teams now calling the shots on infrastructure for those organizations? If so, then NSX, as a linchpin of VMware's SDDC, is definitely in the picture.

"VMware...is a long-term threat to Cisco's desire to not only protect its core business, but also to get a bigger share of overall data center expenditures" in compute, networking, storage and management, Casemore says.

Arista is a threat in data center and cloud switching, but the company also believes Insieme underscores a mission it's been on for years before the Cisco spin-in's arrival.

"Insieme is a validation of Arista's direction and strategy for the last five years: merchant silicon and an extensible operating system," says Arista CEO Jayshree Ullal. "Customers will need to decide on a closed path and a best-of-breed path (for data center and cloud fabric networking). There's room for both."

Ullal also criticized Cisco's 40G BiDi optics on the Nexus 9000 as proprietary. These optics are intended to allow users with installed multimode fiber for 10G to use that same cabling as they upgrade to 40G.

Though Ullal acknowledged that multimode 10G is the predominant deployment in data centers, she says single mode fiber should be used for 40G and 100G.

"You don't want to compromise the distance" of 40/100G with multimode fiber, she says. "At 40 km to 100 km, single mode is preferred."

HP is not really on Cisco's radar screen in data center networking. But HP is big into SDNs, especially those based on OpenFlow and the decoupled control and data plane architecture.

HP also views Insieme as responding to the SDN wave with proprietary hardware.

"Cisco ignores the SDN movement and instead seems to continue their focus on creating a hardware-defined' alternative that locks customers into a proprietary Cisco network denying customers the economic and game-changing simplification, automation and application development benefits promised by SDN," states HP Networking CTO Dave Larson.

Larson claims the Nexus 9000 and ACI is incompatible with existing Nexus switches, lacks a migration path for those customers and does not protect those investments. He says ACI is a lock-in to a Cisco-only architecture, while HP's OpenFlow-based SDN switches and controller, and 23-partner ecosystem are designed for HP and non-HP infrastructure.

"It's clear from this announcement that Cisco is late to the SDN game and is trying to defy the SDN movement with hardware-defined proprietary infrastructure," Larson states. "At the same time, this announcement validates HP's leading and proven vision that the application is the most important part of the infrastructure."

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.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.


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