Cisco tries to head off software-defined networks

Multipronged approach intended to stake leadership, stave off threat from all angles

SAN DIEGO -- Cisco's network programmability strategy is a multifaceted initiative intended to keep the business at the forefront of networking technology, even as it threatens the company's dominance.

Software-defined networking (SDN) has been hailed by proponents as the biggest transformation of networking in decades. It promises to make the physical infrastructure irrelevant to the actual behavior of the traffic by enabling software programmability of flows and additional features.

The problem for Cisco is, it makes a lot of money of the customized nature of its hardware and software, which is omnipresent in enterprise, data center and service provider networks. Cisco is the leading provider of Ethernet and IP networking hardware in the industry.

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But with the increasing openness of software in open-source communities and the broadening capabilities of merchant ASICs, SDNs and associated standards -- like OpenFlow -- are poised to further commoditize and undercut the profitability of networking hardware. So it behooves Cisco to get as close to SDN as it can, from every angle, so it can control not only the pace at which it infiltrates Cisco's ubiquity, but also the threat it poses to it.

"Networking is about to be reinvented and Cisco will do that reinvention of networking," says Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, during an interview at the company's annual business partner conference here. "Clearly we understand the implication of what is good about it and what are the things we need to improve."

The single most visible aspect of Cisco's programmability strategy -- the company seems careful not to label it as an SDN initiative -- is Insieme, the Cisco-funded startup building what is believed to be a programmable switch line supporting OpenStack and distributed data storage. Cisco initially invested $100 million in Insieme, with the right to purchase the remaining interests of the company for up to $750 million.

Other facets of Cisco's programmability strategy include adding features to its NX-OS data center network operating system for "agility and scale," Warrior says; getting the Nexus and Catalyst switching lines on common ASIC and software roadmaps; and extending the roadmap of the Nexus 1000v virtual switch, which Cisco claims is a pioneer in SDNs.

"Probably the first software-defined network in the industry was the Nexus 1Kv," Warrior says. "That started with 10 engineers as a project within Cisco."

There are now more than 5,000 customers for the Nexus 1000v, which has been shipping since 2009.

Another aspect of the programmability strategy is to do nothing to let customers program their Cisco networks.

"Not all customers want programmability," Warrior says. "It's a very small subset wants programmability. A lot of our customers are happy to leave everything to us to allow them to be programmed. So we have to be careful that we don't equate software-defined networking with only one aspect of it."

Indeed, Cisco's multipronged approach is intended to address the various business and use cases its vast installed base of customers face. It also includes support for various standard and non-standard techniques, such as OpenStack and OpenFlow, but is not founded on any one.

"OpenFlow ... we look at it as one way to achieve that programmability," Warrior says. "Certain customers want to experiment with OpenFlow and we'll support them with that. We don't believe it defines software-defined networking or programmability. It is one tool or one approach to do that. Similarly, with a software controller that's one way to deploy network services. So there will be multiple ways to get to that endpoint."

Customers with "massively scalable" data centers are prime targets for SDNs to manage increasing "East-West" traffic flows between server racks in flatter topologies with multiple active links, Warrior says.

"But for the majority of enterprises, it isn't," she says.

So Insieme is but one component of Cisco's overall programmability strategy. And its products aren't expected for another two years, at least.

But sources say in the interim -- over the next six to 12 months -- Cisco is expected to unveil new products with SDN capabilities that make the network more programmable.

And on the network commoditization threat? Leadership in networking is much more than programmable technology, Warrior points out.

"When somebody else is coming up with ideas, you drive innovation faster," she says. "At the end of the day though, networking is an infrastructure. And to lead in that market you need to have a great channel and great go-to-market program. You won't be able to be successful in the marketplace with just technology. This is where Cisco leads everybody else in the industry."

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