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SDN showdown: Examining the differences between VMware's NSX and Cisco's ACI

By Ethan Banks, Owner, Packet Pushers Interactive, Network World
January 06, 2014 06:09 AM ET

Network World - The arrival of Software Defined Networking (SDN), which is often talked about as a game changing technology, is pitting two industry kingpins and former allies against each other: Cisco and VMware.

Although the companies are coming at SDN from different directions, their software defined aspirations virtually guarantee confrontation. So now that both have laid their SDN cards on the table, it’s time to compare and contrast their approaches.

VMware jumped on SDN early with the $1.2 billion acquisition of startup Nicira mid- 2012. Nicira’s network virtualization strategy fit well into VMware’s overall product set, allowing for a tight coupling with products such as vSphere.

Just over a year after the Nicira acquisition, VMware announced its network virtualization platform called NSX in August 2013. VMware customers who want to take their data center virtualization strategy to the next level can now look to a vendor they’ve trusted for their core virtualization needs.

Network giant Cisco was slow to condone the SDN movement, probably because it has the most to lose from the arrival of SDN given the technology promises to pry the network smarts out of packet handling equipment and centralize it in controllers. In fact, Cisco’s SDN strategy had been muddy for almost two years. Although the company rolled out various products and initiatives under an SDN umbrella, there was nothing that felt like a cohesive strategy that customers could get a hold of – until now.

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With the announcement of Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in November, Cisco has finally revealed what it believes SDN should look like. Spending $863 million to acquire Insieme Networks, which it funded as a “spin-in” startup, Cisco has unleashed a full-court press to evangelize ACI to the masses.

So how do VMware NSX and Cisco ACI line up and where do they fall in the emerging SDN ecosystem of products?  To find out we’ll take a deeper dive into each product, exploring the key elements of what they do, how they do it, and what that means to customers.

VMware NSX

Brad Hedlund, VMware engineering architect, described the goal of NSX succinctly: “We want you to be able to deploy a virtual network for an application at the same speed and operational efficiency that you can deploy a virtual machine.”

NSX tackles this lofty goal by provisioning hypervisor virtual switches to meet an application’s connectivity and security needs. Virtual switches are connected to each other across the physical network using an overlay network, which is no mean feat.  

So how does VMware accomplish this? There are several key elements, all of which revolve around a distributed virtual switch (vSwitch).

Sitting at the network edge in the hypervisor, the vSwitch handles links between local virtual machines. If a connection to a remote resource is required, the vSwitch provides access to the physical network. More than just a simple bridge, the NSX vSwitch is also a router, and if needed, a firewall.

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