Cisco’s Vision Moves Beyond SDN, But Product Plans Don’t

Cisco Systems failed to live up to its own hype June 26. The company offered a vision of its future in the form of a few new switches and automation software—but declined to announce long-awaited plans for the software-defined networking technology it acquired with Insieme Networks in 2012.

The new switches from Cisco’s Nexus 7700 product line—and the dynamic fabric automation (DFA) software that can lie atop them and be managed by third-party applications—are decent enough, but don’t fulfill earlier hints that Cisco would finally reveal product plans for Insieme’s much-touted SDN software, about which Cisco has been virtually silent since investing in the startup in April, 2012, according to analysis by GigaOm.

Both switches will offer high capacity even for datacenter networking, but Cisco has provided only hints about the future rather than a definite roadmap for specific products and technologies. Some expected a full disclosure of long-term plans for virtualized networks this week, according to Jim Duffy of Network World.

Though even Cisco described discussion of its “Application-Centric Infrastructure” as a vision rather than a specific product roadmap or long-term plan for Insieme’s software-defined networking (SDN) technology, the company did describe what could be a significant change in direction for enterprise networks, according to Zeus Kerravala, founder of analysis firm ZK Research and former top-level analyst at Yankee Group. “They actually positioned SDNs as yesterday’s news,” he wrote.

Even without specifics, the Application-Centric Infrastructure does constitute a big change in plans about how to get to the next-generation datacenter and what that datacenter might look like, according to Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, who presented the plan onstage at Cisco Live and in blogs explaining the change.

Though SDNs have been No. 1 on the list of technologies that will create the next generation of datacenter networks, the whole approach is flawed because SDN systems are based on abstractions of existing models of the network, which limit their ability to merge management of physical and virtual network assets, focus on the whole network rather than managing one network box at a time, and are limited in their programmability and ability to apply management policies to an entire network from a single point, according to Warrior.

The Application-Centric Infrastructure, on the other hand, is designed specifically to act as an automated integration layer that would improve the performance and stability of large-scale applications by understanding its requirements and program network components over which the application runs, in order to support requirements of that specific application.

That level of customized optimization would normally require having an admin manage provisioning and performance using a command-line interface to make detailed configuration or policy changes to every network device over which an application runs—and which may live in pieces spread among several datacenters, internal and external clouds.

Building datacenter networks on a flexible fabric rather than individually wired connections—as Cisco and many of its competitors have done or are beginning to do—makes the network, datacenter and application more dynamic, but doesn’t integrate network and applications enough to take into account specific requirements for either deployment or performance.

“Network, compute, and storage need to be able to operate as one high-performance resource pool that can be provisioned instantly and automatically according to the needs of the application and related IT policies with security pervasive throughout. This type of dynamic, automated infrastructure provisioning requires a single point of management for the integrated needs of application, network and security administrators that replaces the fragmented, siloed views they have today,” Warrior wrote.

Concepts were as big as details were small in Cisco’s discussion of the new approach to infrastructure, though the announcement did make clear that Insiem’s technology is likely to appear as a major shift in platform strategy rather than an improvement in network virtualization.

Most major changes in technology vision require re-orienting or rebuilding developer networks to ensure an ecosystem is being built to make the new vision work interactively with other pieces of infrastructure. Cisco has been trying to rebuild its developer network, and get those developers to align their work with Cisco’s different approaches to networking, integrated computing, security and a range of other development areas. Getting all the related developers moving in the same direction and supporting the same technology is a big challenge, but not one at which Cisco has been particularly successful.


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