Cisco Buying Embrane to Boost Network Services Expertise

The acquisition of the 5-year-old startup will give Cisco and its ACI efforts greater traction in the higher levels of the SDN stack.

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Cisco Systems is bolstering its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) efforts by acquiring Embrane, a startup whose products are designed to enable organizations to rapidly provision network services.

Cisco's ACI, which is the company's answer to the growing software-defined networking (SDN) trend, uses a combination of software and hardware to create networking infrastructures that can be optimized in both physical and virtual environments—and that can leverage partnerships with other vendors—to enhance application performance.

Adding the Embrane engineers into the equation will enable Cisco to expand the flexibility of the ACI strategy and its underlying Nexus switch foundation, according to Hilton Romanski, senior vice president and head of business development for Cisco.

"With this acquisition, we continue our commitment to open standards through programmable APIs and multi-vendor environments," Romanski wrote in an April 1 post on the company blog. "More importantly, we remain committed to the rich ecosystem of partners and customers in production through the automation of network services, cloud and system management orchestration and automation stacks."

The Embrane employees will join Cisco's Insieme business unit, which oversees the development of ACI. The deal is expected to close during the second quarter. No financial terms of the deal were disclosed. The acquisition comes about two months after reports that Cisco was investing $6 million in the Embrane.

SDN and network-functions virtualization (NFV) hold the promise of more agile, dynamic and programmable networks by removing the control plane and networking tasks—like load balancing and firewalls—from complex and expensive networking gear and putting them into software that can run on less costly commodity hardware. It's helping fuel a transition in the networking space that some industry observers have speculated will challenge Cisco's dominance in the space by cutting into the vendor's sales of high-margin switches and routers.

Some rivals—in particular, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks—have looked to counter this trend by offering more open switches that can run third-party software like Cumulus Networks' Linux-based networking operating system, giving organizations an alternative not only to Cisco gear but also to white-box and bare-metal switches built by original design manufacturers (ODNs).

However, Cisco executives have argued that getting the best application performance requires a combination of optimized hardware and software, which is the basis of the ACI strategy. In a conference call in February to talk about the latest quarterly financial numbers, Cisco CEO John Chambers touted the rapid growth of revenues and customers for the ACI technology and the Nexus 9000 switches as proof that his company is thriving despite the supposed SDN threat.

"We are pulling away from our competitors and leading in both the SDN thought leadership and customer implementations," Chambers said. "The market has recognized the benefit of ACI as compared to PowerPoint concepts of aspirational competitors. ACI and APIC [Application Policy Infrastructure Controller] will become the cornerstone of the next generation of networking architectures for many years, much like the UCS [Unified Computing System] has become in the data center."

In a post on the Embrane blog, co-founder and Chief Product Officer Dante Malagrino wrote that Cisco's view of the industry meshes well with that of Embrane, which was founded in 2009.

"The networking DNA of Cisco and Embrane together drives our common vision for an Application Centric Infrastructure," Malagrino wrote. "We both believe that innovation must be evolutionary and enable IT organizations to transition to their future state on their own terms—and with their own timelines. It's about coexistence of hardware with software and of new with legacy in a way that streamlines and simplifies operations. … Joining Cisco gives us the opportunity to continue our journey and participate in one of the most significant shifts in the history of networking: leading the industry to better serve application needs through integrated software-hardware models."

In an interview with eWEEK in 2013, Malagrino said that as vendors like HP and VMware were focusing on the SDN infrastructure layer, Embrane through its Heleos products was looking farther up the stack (Layers 4 through 7) to the virtual services—such as rapid provisioning and security—that run atop the infrastructure.