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Cisco's App Centric Approach Draws Microsoft, Other Partners

Cisco today kicked off its applications centric infrastructure (ACI) effort, announced the purchase of Insieme Networks and presented partner backing for its software-defined networking (SDN) alternative vision.

That alternative vision is centered not so much on abstracting networking functions through software. Instead, Cisco's ACI effort is grounded in some currently available and forthcoming hardware products. For instance, ACI is based on Cisco's forthcoming Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) appliance, which is scheduled for shipment in the second quarter of 2014, according to a Cisco blog post. Cisco described APIC as "a highly scalable, clustered software controller capable of managing 1M endpoints," adding that it works "independently of switch data and control planes." It creates a software network profile for use by applications, according to a Cisco-produced YouTube video.

Other ACI components include Cisco's Nexus 9000 family of switches for datacenters, an enhanced version of Cisco's NX-OS operating system for Nexus 9000 products and a Cisco Application Virtual Switch for the network edge.

Cisco also announced the acquisition of its spin-off company Insieme Networks. Cisco initially invested $100 million as part of creating Insieme Networks in April of 2012. Now it has bought Insieme, Cisco announced, and will run it as a wholly owned Cisco business, contributing $863 million for the purpose. Insieme developed Cisco's Nexus 9000 switch products, as well as a new 40G Ethernet transceiver that Cisco will use to compete with products from Arista Networks and Huawei, according to a Network World FAQ on Insieme.

Cisco's SDN Alternative
Cisco's ACI approach with its hardware products represents a competitive pushback against so-called "network functions virtualization" SDN solutions, which potentially could eat into Cisco's networking hardware profits. For instance, one SDN competitor to Cisco's ACI products is VMware's NSX solution. Cisco's YouTube video complains that such hypervisor-based virtualization solutions just introduce more complexity for organizations. However, Cisco could stand to lose if it should fail to cannibalize its own profits to a degree by rolling out an SDN approach of its own. At least that's one explanation for why Cisco backed the Insieme efforts, as described in a Seeking Alpha article.

Partners come into play with this Cisco ACI vision because Cisco is delivering open APIs that will make things easier for applications deployed in datacenters. The open APIs include support for "OpenStack, Open Daylight, virtual switches and VXLAN" extensions, according to Cisco's announcement. The ACI approach supposedly will make it easier to install and scale applications, among other benefits.

"ACI couples innovations in software, hardware, systems and ASICS [application-specific integrated circuits] with a dynamic, application-aware network policy model built around open APIs to reduce application deployment from months to minutes," according to Cisco's announcement.

Cisco's open APIs either support, or will support, functions such as management, monitoring, network service, orchestration, storage and virtualization. Its current partners on the ACI products include Microsoft, along with BMC, CA Technologies, Citrix, EMC, Embrane, Emulex, F5, IBM, NetApp, Panduit, Puppet Labs, NIKSUN, OpsCode, Red Hat, SAP, Splunk, Symantec, VCE and VMware.

Microsoft's Efforts
Microsoft, for its part, plans to tap "converged ACI stacks that include fully integrated versions of Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V, System Center 2012 R2, SQL Server, Exchange and SharePoint," according to an announcement attributed to Satya Nadella, Microsoft's executive vice president for cloud and enterprise. Expected benefits of tapping this ACI infrastructure include simplified application deployments and automation, as well as workload mobility for hybrid clouds, according to Microsoft's announcement.

Nadella indicated that "prevalidated" solutions from Microsoft and Cisco are available today. Those solutions include Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012, and Cisco's Unified Computing System. Apparently, the ACI capabilities aren't yet available in Microsoft's products today, according to a blog post by Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. He cited comments from Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Windows Server and System Center Group, in a Cisco-produced YouTube video, suggesting that the ACI capabilities are still to come in those Microsoft products.

Laliberte described Cisco's ACI announcements as "a seminal moment for Cisco," which could help simplify management and automation for IT organizations and lower costs.

"The vision for ACI is to provide a centralized application policy controller that separates the policy from the underlying IP infrastructure," Laliberte wrote. "This allows applications to quickly scale within a data center or across multiple data centers or hybrid cloud environments and retain all the services, security, and performance levels required."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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