Cisco Pursues Dual Strategy on Software-Defined Networking, Cloud

Cisco has irked some in the open source SDN community by embracing OpenFlow, but it’s also exploring proprietary systems. The company is explaining why both strategies make sense for it.

Cisco Systems is going to detail its strategy for developing technology to enable software-defined networking (SDN) in the cloud and how it will support the OpenStack Foundation for open-source cloud while simultaneously developing proprietary technology that it believes will give it an edge in the market.

Cisco will be joining scores of other companies and developers at the OpenStack Summit that runs Oct. 15 to 18 in San Diego. There, the company will be introducing the Cisco Edition, its version of an OpenStack set of networking software to enable SDN in a Cisco cloud environment.

"This is really targeted toward helping people run OpenStack in production on Cisco infrastructure," said Lew Tucker, vice president and chief technology officer of cloud computing at Cisco, who was also recently elected vice chairman of the board of the OpenStack Foundation, which was launched Sept. 19.

The OpenStack community was established in 2010 to develop software for delivering cloud computing in an open-source environment and was led by cloud service provider Rackspace as well as the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., both of which were developing different approaches to an open-source cloud software stack. The stack refers to a full range of system software, middleware and applications that deliver a complete computer system.

OpenStack is not to be confused with OpenFlow, an open-source protocol for enabling SDN by adding a layer of intelligence software to networking switches to more efficiently move data packets along. OpenFlow has been championed by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which is comprised of academic researchers, vendors and data center operators.

While joining the ONF, Cisco earlier this year said OpenFlow was just one way of enabling SDN, irking some in the ONF who said it appeared that Cisco was developing proprietary technology to ensure "vendor lock-in" with its customers rather than supporting open standards like OpenFlow.

Cisco in April was forced to acknowledge, due to a news leak, that it had created Insieme, a startup organization within Cisco—called a "spin-in" company—to further develop SDN technology. It lifted the veil a little bit more on its strategy at a daylong briefing of tech news editors in May in advance of its Cisco Live user conference in June.

Now as Cisco's OpenFlow/SDN strategy further takes shape, the company is making clear how OpenFlow is just one component of SDN and how both technologies can help to build an OpenStack platform in order to create an intelligent network that delivers an efficient, scalable and highly available cloud environment.

"OpenFlow does just one thing. It's a way to direct the forwarding of packets in a network," Tucker explained. But Cisco's approach to SDN is to glean more information from the network to make smarter decisions about traffic management.

That's why it is offering the Cisco One Platform Kit (OnePK), an open application programming interface (API) to create apps to build more SDN services.

"You can use OpenFlow but you can also use OnePK and those interfaces to get information out of the network so that you can construct policy-driven deployments and operations over your network," Tucker said.

Cisco is also introducing OpenStack support for the Cisco Intelligent Automation for Cloud (CIAC) product, a cloud services orchestration tool to deploy those services in a cloud environment.

"You can bring up a rather complex service and make sure that it is on-boarding users and with quotas and policies and everything else," Tucker explained. The CIAC helps deploy services on cloud service providers such as Amazon, VMware and, soon, OpenStack, he added.

In addition, Cisco is going to start using OpenStack to add services to its WebEx Web conferencing platform. And Cisco says the cable TV/voice/Internet access provider Comcast is now bringing OpenStack in-house.