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Cisco's Nexus 9000, ACI customers grow

But ACI accounts for less than 20% of N9K shops; switching highlights Q2 rebound

Cisco now has 1,700 customers for its Nexus 9000 switch and over 300 for its APIC controller, the central element of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) programmable networking and SDN strategy. This is up from 970 and 200+, respectively, in the company’s fiscal first quarter.

The number of ACI/APIC customers compared to the number of Nexus 9000 customers – Nexus 9000 is the hardware underlay or foundation for ACI – might seem underwhelming at first blush: only 20% were ACI customers in Q1 and less than 20% in Q2. But APIC just started shipping August 1, Cisco says, while the Nexus 9000 has been shipping for almost a year.

And data center sales cycles are long.

Still, it leaves one wondering whether ACI will have a tough row to hoe. These numbers, combined with Cisco’s introduction last week of a BGP EVPN control plane for VXLAN routing on the Nexus 9000s, signal a rather tepid acceptance to date of the ACI policy infrastructure. The standalone mode Nexus 9000, which relies more on merchant silicon than custom ASICs, might be popular; ACI not so much?

That’s not to say the success of Cisco’s switching business hinges on ACI; quite the contrary. Cisco’s switching business grew 11% in its just reported Q2, with the Nexus 9000 and 3000 – another merchant silicon-based platform – growing 350% from Q2 of last year. Nexus 9000 customers nearly tripled over the past two Cisco quarters and the platform surpassed 1 million installed ports this quarter.

Cisco CEO John Chambers said during this week’s Q2 earnings call that Cisco was going to beat data center SDN rival VMware and have fun doing it. So far, it’s looking like a very tight contest.

In its Q4 earnings call in January, EMC said VMware had 400 paying customers for its NSX network virtualization platform, a 60% boost from the previous quarter. ACI grew 50% in Cisco’s Q2. But NSX also started shipping eight to 10 months before ACI.

NSX bookings for VMware more than doubled in the second half of 2014 as compared to the first half. The product is on a $200 million annual bookings run rate; nine of VMware’s top 10 deals in Q4 contained NSX; and the company closed its first $10 million all-NSX deal with a large global investment bank in the quarter.

So when Chambers says in an earnings call, like he did this week, that Cisco is “pulling away from our competitors and leading in both the SDN thought leadership and customer implementations,” consider that NSX and ACI are virtually neck-and-neck and that currently less than 20% of Nexus 9000 customers are ACI customers.

It appears the fight is far from over.

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