This blog is about Cisco Secure Workload on premises platform hardware updates. The cluster hardware comprises of UCS servers and Nexus switches which are required to be upgraded with the EOL cycles of UCS servers and Nexus Switches. In this blog we will discuss about the new M6 hardware platform and its benefits.

Secure Workload is one of the security solutions from Cisco that offers micro-segmentation and application security across multi-cloud environments, and it is available as SaaS and on prem flavors. There is complete feature parity between both the solutions, and we see that many customers have chosen On-prem cluster over SaaS offerings due to their own requirements driven by their businesses especially in banking and finance, manufacturing verticals. Let us understand Microsegmentation and secure workload hardware cluster role.

Microsegmentation is being adopted by many enterprises as a preventive tool which is based on zero-trust principle. It helps protect applications and data by preventing lateral movements of bad actors and containing the blast radius during active attack. Deploying zero trust microsegmentation is a very hard task and operation intensive activity. The difficult part is the policy life cycle. The application requirements from the network keep on evolving as you upgrade, patch, or add new features to your applications and without microsegmentation it goes unnoticed because workloads can communicate to each other freely. As a principle of zero trust while deploying microsegmentation you are creating a micro-perimeter around each of these workloads and whitelisting the intended traffic while blocking rest all (Allow list model) then all these evolving changes in network requirement gets blocked unless there is a policy lifecycle mechanism available. Application teams will never be able to provide the exact communication requirements as they keep on changing and hence automatic detection of policies and changes is required.

Secure workload on prem cluster is available in two form factors small (8U) and large (39U) appliances. The reason Cisco has appliance based on-prem solution is for predictability and performance. In many cases vendors provide VM (Virtual Machine) based appliances with required specifications, but the challenge in VM appliances is that underlying hardware may be shared with other applications and may compromise the performance. Also, troubleshooting for performance related issues becomes challenging, especially for applications with AI/ML processing of large datasets. These appliances come with prebuilt racks with stacks of servers and nexus 9k switches which are hardened. Hence, we know the capacity and the number of workloads supported and other performance parameters can be predicted accurately.

The release 3.8 software has optimized the appliances performance and supporting 50-100% greater number of workloads on same hardware. This means the existing customers with M5 appliances now can support almost double the number of workloads in the existing investment of their appliances. The TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) for existing customers reduces with the new workload capacity numbers. The new and old numbers of supported workloads are as below.

All the current appliances are based on Cisco UCS C-220 M5 Gen 2 series. The M5 series server end of sale/life announcement has been published in May 2023 and M5 based Secure workload cluster has been announced EOS/EOL on 17th August 2023 (link). Even though the M5 cluster will have support for another few years, there are certain benefits of upgrading the cluster to M6.

Let us understand how the Micro-segmentation policies are detected and enforced in CSW (Cisco Secure Workload). The network telemetry is collected from all agent-based and agentless workloads in CSW. The AI/ML based Application dependency mapping is run on this dataset to detect the policies and changes to policies. The policies per workload are calculated and then pushed to workloads for enforcement leveraging the native OS firewalling capabilities. This is a huge amount of dataset to be handled for policy detection. The AI/ML tools are always CPU intensive and demand high CPU resources for faster processing. The larger the dataset will take longer processing time and require more CPU horsepower in the cluster to get more granular policies. It also needs a fast lane network within the cluster for communication between the nodes as the application is distributed amongst the cluster nodes. All of these performance related requirements of cluster drive the need to have more CPU resources and faster network connectivity. Though the existing hardware configuration is quite sufficient to handle all these requirements, there are going to be new features and functionalities which will be added in future releases and those may also need additional resources. Hence with the new 3.8 release we are launching the support for the new M6 Gen 3 appliance for both 8U and 39U platform. The processing power is based on the latest Cisco C series Gen3 servers with the latest processors from Intel and newer N9k switches. The new Intel processors are powerful with more cores available per processor, hence the total count of processing GHz for cluster is increased, providing more horsepower for AI/ML-based ADM (Application Dependency Mapping) processing. The overall performance of the cluster will be boosted by the additional cores available in the nodes.

We know that any upgrade of hardware is a difficult IT task. So, to simplify the upgrade task, we have made sure that the migration to M6 from M4/M5 is seamless by qualifying and documenting the complete process step wise in the migration guide. The document also mentions the checks to be carried out before and after migration to confirm that all data has been migrated correctly. All the existing configuration of the cluster with flow data will be backed up using DBR (Data Backup and Restore) functionality and will be restored on the new cluster after migration. This ensures that there is no data loss during the migration. The agents can be configured to re-home automatically to new cluster and reinstallation of agents is not needed.

As we know in security that the MTTD/MTTR must be as fast as possible, and I think that M6 upgrade will bring in faster threat and policy detection and response reducing MTTD/MTTR.

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Abhijeet Nakhate

Product Manager

Security Business Group