Cisco spin-in (now fully spun in) Insieme and I have to say it was not what I expected. It looks like Insieme is not an SDN controller, but rather an application controller or more aptly an application policy engine that will sit inside Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches. The solution will be part of a larger Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). ACI is comprised of the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), the Nexus 9000 portfolio, and enhanced versions of the NX-OS operating system. There will be a commensurate set of APIs that will provide interoperability with third party management solutions, orchestration engines and security solutions.
I thought it was interesting that the only real reference John Chambers made to SDN was to contrast it in light of how ATM failed to take the world by storm and replace Ethernet in the 90s. The implication was clear ATM was a lot of hype and at the end of the day it failed to displace the incumbent. SDN is notably absent from both the press release and John Chambers’s blog post. So it would appear that Cisco is still looking to change the discussion and move it away from SDN and towards applications and application policy management. Cisco does not acknowledge SDN as a threat – more like annoying background noise. The real threat is VMware’s overlay solution NSX. This is Cisco’s attempt to stop VMware from marginalizing the physical networking layer. Cisco is backing this up by claiming (via dubious cost modeling) that adding a second overlay network is far more expensive than sticking with a single intelligent network layer.
Application performance can always be better. Wouldn’t it be nice if applications could dynamically adapt to changing network conditions and choose the best path to traverse across the network? We have seen this problem over and over again as we go through major paradigm shifts in IT infrastructure design. It happened when we moved to client/server and now it is happening again as we try to figure out how to embrace hybrid cloud. The problem is often with the design of the application itself. If it is being used in a less than optimal deployment scenario, performance suffers. An application policy controller with network intelligence could go a long way to creating that dynamic and adaptable application response. However, that is going to require some serious work because that intelligence is going to have to be baked in at the application level as well as at the controller.
But here is the problem – this is only part of the story. While application performance is clearly a top of line issue, another major concern is the lack of visibility across physical and virtual infrastructures. This is where Juniper has a much cleaner and better-developed story to tell. The company is providing connectivity between Juniper’s Network Director (element management software) and VMware vSphere, providing visibility for both the datacenter and network engineering. The “how” of providing visibility across physical and network infrastructures is missing from the Cisco announcement. And there in lies the problem with this announcement – it was long on rhetoric, but short on details. There are no specifics on how management will be addressed and there were no details on orchestration.
It would have made more sense to showcase this as part of the Cisco ONE platform story. It actually appears that way in the Cisco ONE page on their website. The application policy engine is part of that story, but instead Cisco made Insieme the focal point of this launch and without the proper context, the message was more convoluted than it should have been. Cisco must find ways to make its infrastructure solutions more flexible, flatter and interoperable with higher levels of the stack. The Cisco ONE platform is a good place from which Cisco can build out that story. They cannot let the hype and excitement around Insieme allow them to move off target. ACI is a supporting component, but not the central piece. The lines have been drawn and Cisco does not want to cede ground to VMware and VMware wants to build networking in at the higher levels in the stack. The problem is that both companies’ products reside side by side in the same datacenters and customers will demand that they figure out how to play nice, even if the CEOs want to grandstand in the press about how they don’t need each other.