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Cisco Live: Breaking down Cisco's new data center strategy

What will change as Cisco expands it data center strategy?

Day 1 of Cisco Live was all about the branch and campus with the release of the Cisco ONE Enterprise Network Architecture, coupled with a bevy of new products, including a new branch router, aggregation services appliance, and access switches, including the Catalyst 6800 – a replacement for the long-lived Cat 6500. The 6800 replacement is significant as I’ve long felt that the 6500 is the “Joe Montana” of Ethernet switches. Montana won early in his career, in the middle, and, of course, went out on top as the greatest QB ever. However, all good things must come to an end and Montana gave way to Steve Young. Similarly, the 6500 is giving way to the Cat 6800, which should be around for well over a decade.

Day 2 of Cisco Live was kicked off by Rob Lloyd, and he moved away from the broader network and focused squarely on the data center. Since the audience is primarily a bunch of geeks, he unveiled the new Nexus 7700 before he covered the new architecture. The Nexus 7700 is a beast of a switch. If the Cat6800 is the Montana of switching, the Nexus 7700 is the Ray Lewis of switching, in that it’s one mean switch that takes no prisoners.

When you look at the specs, this is a behemoth – 83 TB of switching capacity, port density of 384 40 Gig-E or 192 100 Gig-E ports, all at line rate. Cisco also released a number of new line cards for the Nexus 7K family that have features for core, spine, leaf and DCI and are VXLan-compliant for virtual networking. Do you really need that much capacity? Not right now, but history has shown we use whatever capacity we have.

Lloyd then went through Cisco's next-generation data center architecture, which actually positioned SDNs as yesterday's news. The new Cisco architecture, called "Application Centric Infrastructure," is designed to support a data center that has applications that are non-virtualized, virtualized and cloud-based. Lloyd's argument is that the complexity of running a hybrid IT environment is much more complicated and requires a new operating model. The reasoning is sound - SDNs may address the needs of the likes of Amazon and Facebook, but traditional enterprises with overworked IT departments need a simpler, automated, flexible solution – hence the shift to Application Centric Infrastructure.

The solution will be delivered with future spin-in Insieme and promises to radically simplify data center operations. Although Cisco gave no details on what exactly Insieme is, the joint solution will do for the entire data center what UCS did for servers. Customers that use UCS and Nexus today can create something called service profiles that allow for the rapid provisioning of server and network resources when deploying applications. The service profiles will now be expanded to include any hypervisor, storage, and application resources.

This certainly has its merits and sounds good on paper, however, executing on this isn’t trivial. Rob Lloyd stressed the importance of building a real developer community to leverage the Application Centric Infrastructure. I completely agree with this. However, Cisco has been trying to build one for the past decade. Cisco says it is completely aligned in this direction and the creating of a real "Cisco Developer Network" (CDN) is a top priority. Given the number of starts and stops CDN has had, I’m skeptical of Cisco’s ability to actually deliver on this. I agree that there are a number of new leaders that have software backgrounds, but a successful CDN requires the whole company marching in the same direction.

Also, there's the issue of the current customers and channel partners. Most Cisco resellers and buyers don't think application-first. They live and die with the network. Rob Lloyd made a comment that it's time to give up the CLI and move to an automated deployment model. That's fine to say, but CCIEs are steeped in CLI and, in many ways, it's their competitive advantage. The fact is, though, customers and resellers must move this way and be willing to move up the IT stack. The world is changing and old-school skill sets will soon be irrelevant. Think back to the days when mainframe computing turned Windows. Did the mainframe people move the industry? Heck no, it was a bunch of new IT individuals that pushed the old guard out. For Cisco customers, you need to move in the direction of "hybrid IT" or face irrelevance yourself. I understand Cisco has some new certifications coming to address this, but shifting customer/channel mindset will require a fair bit of work.

Overall, it was good to see Cisco punch back at the industry. SDNs, cloud, mobility and virtualization are not commoditizing the network. Far from it, it raises the value and Cisco is trying to lead the change instead of allowing the startups in this market to carry the voice of networking. The company unloaded a ton of new products, and now it needs to go execute on the go-to-market stuff, which has been a historical point of strength for Cisco.

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