Cisco CEO Chambers Dismisses SDN Rivals, White-Box Makers

The head of the world's top networking vendor is riding the wave of the strong performance of Cisco's ACI platform and Nexus 9000 switches.

Cisco CEO John Chambers

Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers has a message for those concerned that software-defined networking poses a threat to his company's future: Don't worry about it.

During the last financial quarter, Cisco saw sales of its network switches grow 11 percent over the same period a year earlier. More specifically, revenues for its Nexus 3000 and Nexus 9000 switches—the foundation for the Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), the vendor's answer to software-defined networking (SDN)—increased 350 percent, while the number of customers for the Nexus 9000 switches and ACI jumped from 580 earlier last year to 1,700 in the final three months of 2014.

Cisco has shipped more than 1 million Nexus 9000 installed ports, and the number of customers of the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) grew past 300 since the technology was released in July 2014.

The numbers led a confident Chambers to say during a Feb. 11 conference call with analysts and journalists that not only does SDN not threaten Cisco, but that his company is thriving in the highly competitive market.

"We are pulling away from our competitors and leading in both the SDN thought leadership and customer implementations," he said. "The market has recognized the benefit of ACI as compared to PowerPoint concepts of aspirational competitors. ACI and APIC 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."

Networking is a space in transition. SDN and network-functions virtualization (NFV) take the control plane and networking tasks from the complex underlying hardware—the kind that Cisco has sold for decades—and put them into software that can run on less-expensive commodity hardware. The move has given rise to white-box makers, which sell affordable switches that can run other vendors' software. A growing number of established networking vendors—such as Dell and Juniper Networks—are now offering what Gartner analysts call "brite boxes," which are open switches that can run third-party software.

SDN also has given rise to new competitors, from startups like Plexxi and Big Switch Networks to established data center players like VMware that are adding network virtualization capabilities to their portfolio.

Cisco also is challenged by such large Web businesses as Facebook and Google, which are developing their own networking gear to more efficiently and quickly move the massive amounts of data running through their data centers. On the same day that Cisco announced its quarterly earnings, Facebook engineers unveiled their latest networking device.

Cisco in 2013 introduced ACI, a strategy that 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 get the best performance out of applications. Chambers called it an architectural play that includes integration of networking technology with servers and storage appliances and offers a range of capabilities that rivals and white-box makers can't, and which makes Cisco a partner that organizations want to work with.