Cisco ends the SDN suspense

Unveils Cisco ONE architecture and strategy for instilling programmability into its network gear

SAN DIEGO -- At long last, the wait - and suspense - is over. Or is it just beginning?

Cisco today rolled out its vision and architecture for instilling programmability throughout a Cisco network - a blueprint the company says goes far beyond the OpenFlow and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) schemes most competitors are proposing.

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BACKGROUND: Critical milestones in Cisco history

But with Cisco’s vast installed base entrenched in doing things the way they’ve been done for decades, it’s unclear how the technology roll out. And rather than making an immediate difference , Cisco will release Cisco ONE in phases, meaning customers will implement it in phases – so its uptake and impact may be barely detectable to anyone other than those deploying it.

Cisco's strategy is called the Open Network Environment, or Cisco ONE, previously referred to as Cisco OPEN or COPE. Cisco ONE is designed to enable Cisco networks to be flexible and customizable to meet the needs of newer networking and IT trends such as cloud, mobility, social networking and video.

Cisco unveiled the architecture at the CiscoLive! user conference here this week.

Cisco ONE includes APIs, agents and controllers, and overlay network technologies designed to make each layer of a network - from the transport layer up through the management and orchestration layers - programmable in order to make it adaptable and extensible to changing needs.

This differs, Cisco says, from more commonplace approaches to SDNs in which the control plane is decoupled from the forwarding plane and OpenFlow is used as an API, agent and protocol to command switches from an external controller.

Cisco says Cisco ONE complements this approach by opening up areas above and below the control and forwarding planes addressed by OpenFlow. This allows customers to program the network using a variety of protocols - not just OpenFlow - and further customize it according to their usage patterns and deployment models.

Cisco ONE includes the One Platform Kit (onePK) which provides APIs for developers across Cisco's routing and switching operating systems: IOS, IOS-XR and NX-OS. Cisco onePK support will roll out on Cisco platforms in phases, with initial support on the ASR 1000 and ISR G2 routers. The Cloud Connector software that Cisco unveiled this week for those routers supports onePK APIs for third-party development, the company says.

Deployment  models for onePK will differ depending on the customer – enterprise, service provider, cloud service provider, data center, and academia/research – so once onePK is fully implemented and installed in Cisco’s customer base, will anyone really notice or care if it’s SDN or not? And in the time it takes for it to infiltrate Cisco’s base, will there really be a seismic shift in the industry towards non-Cisco OpenFlow/SDN/programmability/network virtualization solutions?    

Trust and familiarity and non-disruption may be on Cisco’s side here.

“Because of the installed base and large set of requirements, it takes learning on Cisco’s part to realize what they need,” said David Yen, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Data Center Group. “We’re not making this announcement for marketing sake and to get visibility; we need to  support and maintain customer issues.”

“OnePK is a cultural transition,” says Shashi Kiran, senior director of Data Center/Virtualization and Enterprise Switching at Cisco. “Customers, partners need to be comfortable, we need to be providing proof of concepts.”

Is Cisco getting squeezed by SDNs?

The other big unknown is the Insieme Networks spin-in Cisco has funded, which is believed to be developing the next-generation of Cisco’s Nexus switches with programmable onePK APIs baked in. Where does Insieme fit into the Cisco ONE scheme and what impact will it have on the overall strategy and its uptake?

Cisco officials at CiscoLive last week remained tight-lipped on Insieme and how and where it fits into the Cisco ONE scheme. If its focus is on massively scalable data centers and/or cloud service providers, then it could be developing onePK switches for network flow management, automated provisioning and programmable overlay networks for the multi-tenancy.

Meanwhile, Cisco ONE also includes proof-of-concept controller software and proof-of-concept OpenFlow v1.0 agent for its Catalyst 3750-X and 3560-X switches for SDN research.

Cisco last fall promised to support OpenFlow on its Nexus data center switches but found in the ensuing months that OpenFlow has less appeal in the data center and more in academia and research, company officials said.

Other components of Cisco ONE include its Nexus 1000V virtual switch, which the company says can be used as the basis of virtual overlay networks for multi-tenant cloud deployments. Nexus 1000V now supports OpenStack Quantum and REST APIs for multi-tenant orchestration, open source hypervisors and a VXLAN gateway connecting physical VLAN and virtual networks.

VXLAN is a network encapsulation technique with segment identifiers for creating millions of logical networks and for enabling workloads to move across data centers and cloud infrastructures. The networking segments will support multitenant cloud infrastructures that require segmentation for security and compliance, Cisco says.

The Nexus 1000V will also now support policy-based, per-tenant virtual security services on VXLAN-based overlay networks.

Cisco ONE is designed to support a variety of deployment model for programmability, including network partitioning, or 'slicing,' in universities and research using OpenFlow agents and controllers; network flow management for massively scalable data centers; automated provisioning and programmable overlay networks for the multi-tenancy requirements of cloud providers; programmatic policy and analytics for service providers; and private cloud automation for virtual workloads in enterprises, including desktop virtualization.

Beta trials and phased general availability are scheduled to begin the fourth quarter of 2012.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 25 years, 21 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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