Cisco's ACI Initiative Draws Praise, Criticism

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-11-09

Cisco's ACI Initiative Draws Praise, Criticism

Cisco Systems is generating a lot of reaction to its Application-Centric Infrastructure initiative, with partners and some analysts saying the strategy makes sense while other industry observers and competitors see the effort as another way the vendor is trying to stall the inevitable march of software-defined networks.

Given its size and the influence it wields in the tech industry, almost everything Cisco does elicits some sort of response. However, given the rise of software-defined networks (SDNs) and the new and evolving demands on the data center coming from such trends as cloud computing, big data, mobility and bring-your-own-device (BYOD), the company's announcement Nov. 6 was closely watched and parsed.

Even in the days leading up to the official unveiling of the Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI), several of Cisco's networking competitors announced new offerings—from Juniper Networks' launch of its MetaFabric to Arista Networks' new 7000X series of switches to startup Pertino's AppScape networking app store.

Afterwards, rivals were quick to paint ACI as Cisco's way of ensuring customers continue buying its expensive hardware even though SDN includes the promise of being able to run their networks via software housed on lower cost boxes.

"Cisco's answer to the customer needs for more software agility is to double the number of chips in every box," Mike Marcellin, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for Juniper's Platform Systems Division, said in an emailed statement. "It worked when Doritos introduced their party-size bag."

At an event in New York City, Cisco CEO John Chambers and other executives started hanging technology onto the ACI strategy that they broadly outlined in June. Many in the industry painted the announcement as Cisco's strategy for SDN, a networking model that promises to create more automated, programmable and cost-efficient infrastructures by taking much of the network intelligence from the underlying hardware and putting it into software.

SDN is seen as a threat to Cisco (which owns about 65 percent of the switch and router markets), Juniper and others that have profited in the past by selling expensive and complex switches and routers by enabling organizations to run the networking jobs and services on less costly commodity boxes.

Cisco executives have pushed back at that notion, though an anonymous source told Business Insider that the company, if it jumped into SDN, it would turn the vendor's "$43 billion business into a $22 billion business."

Cisco's ACI looks to leverage both the company's hardware prowess—as seen in the new Nexus 9000 switches and new silicon—and software capabilities to enable organizations to unify their virtual and physical infrastructures and many all their data center resources from a single point, the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). Essentially, the goal is to create an infrastructure that quickly and securely automatically responds to the needs of applications.

SDN is part of all that, but creating such an automated, flexible and cost-effective infrastructure also calls for optimized hardware and operating systems, officials said.

Competitors from Juniper to Dell to Hewlett-Packard said the move is little more than a cynical effort to continue to lock businesses into Cisco technology.

"The ACI strategy and products announced by Cisco create a number of challenges and barriers for customers," Juniper's Marcellin said. "Their approach fundamentally locks organizations into a proprietary stack between their software controller and switches. … As expected from a vendor with so much legacy business to protect, Cisco's answer to the industry's clarion call for more agility and a software-enabled infrastructure is all about hardware."


Cisco's ACI Initiative Draws Praise, Criticism

Dave Larson, chief technology officer for HP's networking business, had similar thoughts, saying in an email that "once again, Cisco ignores the [SDN] movement and instead seems to continue their focus on creating a 'hardware-defined' alternative [HDN] that locks customers into a proprietary Cisco network—denying customers the economic and game-changing simplification, automation and application development benefits promised by SDN."

There also were some vendors who think Cisco was late to the game in linking the infrastructure to application needs.

"I like the vision," Michael Bushong, vice president of marketing at SDN startup Plexxi, said on the company blog. "I like that they are putting applications where they ought to have been all along: at the start of the process. I like that our industry is starting to move away from a reactive networking approach to a more proactive infrastructure that plans for—rather than responds to—application demands. In fact, I like it so much, I joined a company that has been working towards this vision for the past three years."

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, said Cisco's ACI vision could benefit organizations. In a post on the No Jitter blog site, Kerravala said he has found that more than 80 percent of an organization's budget is "used to maintain the status quo. That leaves very little budget for new projects. In lieu of a massive budget increase, most companies need to find a way of lowering the cost of running the current environment, and the data center is a great place to start. … Cisco's ACI architecture is aimed at the big problem in data centers, which is that the costs of provisioning and management tasks associated with application delivery are way too high and getting higher."

Forty percent of data center costs are related to people, so reducing the time to provision an application from weeks or months to minutes or hours could cut people costs significantly, he said. And such an argument goes back to the question of commodity hardware. Cisco argues that using cheaper hardware can increase operational costs by forcing organizations to integrate technology themselves.

"Unlike the other SDN vendors, the primary problem Cisco is trying to solve has nothing to do with commoditizing the network," Kerravala wrote. "On paper, buying cheaper hardware makes some sense, but in practice, the overhead in using cheap stuff far outweighs any benefit one might get from saving a few nickels on network hardware."

Overall, he said, "The big winner … is the customer. Virtualization, SDNs, cloud and mobility have made networks increasingly more agile but also increasingly more complex. Cisco's ACI allows customers to enjoy the benefits while simplifying the management of the infrastructure."

Not all analysts agree.

"Overall, while it is a solid switching fabric that improves network agility, [the new products are] based on an architectural model that will limit long-term innovation," Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner told EE Times. The approach requires "customers to buy network switches to achieve networking agility whether they need new switches or not. It is a proprietary solution that locks you in. You cannot add a non-Cisco switch into the fabric."


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