Cisco's ACI Initiative Draws Praise, Criticism

Competitors say Cisco is trying to keep businesses locked in to its hardware, while others laud the application-centric approach.

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."