Before recently taking on a new role as Cisco’s vice president and general manager of Software-Defined Network (SDN) with the enterprise networking group, I served as the vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Unified Access portfolio and led the expansion of the Catalyst 2k, 3k and 4k series product line, which has seen a lot of growth and developed a strong customer base over the past couple of years. Cisco invests heavily in R&D for these products, and has introduced many innovations improving security, application visibility/control, energy savings and converged wired and wireless infrastructure over the past few years.
But as I shifted into my new role and looked back at some of the new Unified Access solutions we introduced alongside our system architecture, I saw a curious disconnect: in some cases, it was getting more difficult for our customers to quickly take advantage of our new innovations.
At Cisco, we design products to make customers’ lives easier and more productive. Not to gather dust because they’re too hard to figure out!
Would SDN, by any other name, still smell as sweet?
Perhaps I’m in the minority that is still frustrated by this, but as a marketing person who is tasked with explaining technology and solutions to customers and prospects, I feel hamstrung by a lack of a widely agreed upon definition of what is and is not “SDN” still. This usually comes up in discussions about our new Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), and how it compares to traditional SDN concepts, as well as alternative approaches, such as overlay networks advocated by VMware.
The topic came up again this with a NetworkWorld article in which the head of VMware’s network virtualization business is now saying, “SDN will never happen” (our rebuttal). Well, what is happening, if it’s not SDN? Or just because the technology has evolved, do we need to create a new term just because some early assumptions the industry made have changed? As we start out a new year, I thought it a good time to try and reframe the definition, and look at how the trends in SDN may be shaping up to extend the concept into new areas.
Why do customers need SDN?
By early 2012, there was so much hype and expectations around Software Defined Networking, focused on the ability to “program” the network, that real customer use cases and the killer SDN app was lost in the conversation. But what slowly emerged, that is driving all the investment, pilots and product designs is a much better way to manage the data center and cloud network, and to automate IT tasks so that the infrastructure could respond dynamically to rapidly changing business conditions and requirements. The “intelligence” to make all that happen is moving from the network devices and device management consoles, to centralized policy-management platforms, orchestration tools and cloud-managers.
What’s caused the biggest evolution in SDN is the realization that very few organizations really have the desire, skills and incentives to write a new class of applications to a published API to program the network. These users are outlying use cases compared to the vast majority of organizations just looking to automate IT tasks, accelerate application deployment, make their cloud networks more flexible, and better align their IT infrastructure with business requirements. The focus has shifted from SDN being an open API/controller platform, to a platform capable of hosting a myriad of orchestration and IT workflow automation solutions that drive customers to their end goal. To that end, ACI is meeting all those objectives, and in more advanced and innovative ways than earlier SDN approaches.
We’ve been getting a lot of great questions about ACI since our launch as people try and better understand the value of an application-oriented approach. I got the following questions on my blog post about the Application Virtual Switch that probed on some of the thinking behind an application-aware architecture, and why now was the right time to release it (after all, John Chambers called it the most disruptive Cisco innovation in a decade!). Anyway, on to the Q&A:
I’d like to know more about the path that Cisco pursued to evolve towards an “application aware” architecture. This back-story (how Cisco arrived at this juncture) would be very helpful to industry analysts, customers and institutional investors. Here’s some of the key questions on my mind.
- What were the primary roadblocks that inhibited the adoption of this innovative approach in the past?
I would say that the Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) was a combination of a Eureka! moment, that people just never thought of it before, and that it was also an insightful evolution from early SDN technology. So, it might be fair to say that SDN had to come along, and then we realized, here might be a better way to program the network (with an application-oriented model, rather than a network-centric model).
That might be another way of saying that the lack of SDN as a precursor to ACI was a roadblock. But I think of it as networks were just built on hardware that were optimized to pass packets and other very specific tasks. And the limitations of historical networking protocols and traditional network designs, coupled with very limited ways in which you could manage a network and tell it what to do, all served as roadblocks to implementing anything like ACI. So the roadblocks that had to be cleared included the ability to program switches through software interfaces, and to centrally manage the software applications or controllers to orchestrate the broader network, not an individual device. Those are some of the things SDN brought along.
After countless brainstorming sessions, code reviews, lab trials, scores of NDAs and nearly two years of intense speculation from media, analysts and the internet community – it is finally here! Today, Cisco is pulling back the curtains to reveal details of the vision of Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) announced in June 2013. With shipping products as part of the announcement today, Cisco is also taking the first steps in making this vision a concrete reality. In the process, Insieme networks also returns to become a wholly owned subsidiary of Cisco.
For those tuning into the press conference and webcast today , you will see John Chambers, Rob Lloyd and Insieme executives get into the specifics of ACI, with the event being hosted out of the historical Waldorf Astoria in New York. You will also see Cisco’s partners and customers share both the stage as well as a common vision.
So, after months of silence, there will be quite a bit of information sharing, perhaps Information overload even. This is an announcement with innovation at multiple levels, and even for the tech savvy it will take time to fully understand and appreciate the architecture and the benefits it brings.
I wanted to share a few key concepts, innovations, and highlights of the announcement today. We will delve into additional details and dissect these pieces over the next few weeks on this blogging platform as well the public www.cisco.com/go/aci website, which will host a lot of the structured content.
1. The concept of Application Centric Infrastructure
We put together a short video to distill the concepts of ACI. It encompasses a lot of what existing networks today, as well as emerging SDN concepts (regardless of what the definition of SDN is), and goes quite beyond what anyone else is offering out there today. You will see some critical differentiators here:
De-coupling of application and policy from IP infrastructure
Ability to define application network profiles and apply them
Integration of physical and virtual infrastructure elements with end-to-end visibility
The Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) is a new appliance that will be the heart of the ACI fabric. While the actual product will ship around Q2 of next calendar year. An APIC simulator will also be made available on a controlled basis for customers and partners to get familiar and additional information will continue to be made available. Unlike most software-only controllers in the market today that have little ability to exploit the capabilities of hardware, APIC provides a holistic system level view and an ability to tap into the capabilities of the underlying infrastructure. While it will initially be paired with the Nexus 9000, the APIC will be expanded to support other parts of the portfolio as well as other infrastructure building blocks.
The APIC utilizes a centralized policy-model with an application network profile and open architecture that allows for the application needs to be defined and mapped to infrastructure, to make it application-aware.
3. Nexus 9000 – Expanding the Nexus switching family
We’re expanding the highly successful Nexus family with the next “big bad boy” -- the Nexus 9000. This will initially come in two models – the Nexus 9500 and the Nexus 9300, with the former shipping now. It has a variety of innovations for all of the “5 Ps” – (i) an extremely attractive Price point , optimized for 1G to 1/10G in the access, and for 10G to 40G migration in the aggregation layer. In addition (ii) It brings in Industry leading Performance with 1.92Tbps per line card and is 100G ready. (iii) Has significantly higher non-blocking Port-density (iv) Flexible programmability with JSON/XML API with a Linux container for customer apps and (v) Power efficiency – with an innovative design that has no mid-plane/backplane resulting in 15% greater power and cooling efficiency.
The kaon shows the “see-through” design of the Nexus 9500 without the traditional mid-plane design. To see the 3D design of the Nexus 9500 click here
The Nexus 9000 is designed from ground-up to be ACI ready with a combination of merchant silicon and Cisco custom ASICs to deliver the “5 Ps”.
As customers migrate to 10/40G over the next few years, the cost of laying new fiber and overhauling the optics is a tremendous drag and raises barriers for 40G adoption. I wrote about multi-layered innovations – this is one of them at a component level. The 40G BiDi lets customers preserve their existing 10G cables, resulting in tremendous time savings, cost savings (labor and fiber) as well as improved time to market for the upgrade. Bandwidth upgrades is one of the top reasons that drive network refreshes, and this innovation (a Cisco exclusive) produces remarkable results
5. The Partner Ecosystem
It is not possible for one company to address all the challenges manifesting in the data center on its own, no matter how revolutionary the architecture is or how radical the innovations are. This is where a rich ecosystem of partners have stepped in(see the technology leaders rally here), each of them market and innovation leaders respective domains, to make the vision of ACI all the more real and consumable.
Their vision and commitment is reflective both of the shared vision and commitment to transform the data center infrastructure, as well as reflective of the open architecture of the ACI approach in general, building on the principles of the Cisco Open Network Environment (Cisco ONE), but also taking it to other aspects of the infrastructure. You may expect to see a lot of the demos as the APIC becomes generally available next year, even as services offerings around ACI become much richer, as evidenced by Scott’s blog link below.
Please stay tuned to this blog space and the www.cisco.com/go/aciwebsite for additional information over coming weeks and months. As always we would like your comments and constructive criticism as we together help redefine the power of IT.
(*) Click on the Infographic to enlarge or download it