Cisco incubating software-defined network startup?

Insiemi being pitched by 3 star Cisco engineers who also worked on SAN, Nexus switches

Cisco is reportedly considering incubating an internal startup chartered to develop the company's software-defined networking product line.

According to The New York Times, Insiemi is the name of the startup, which would ostensibly be spun in to Cisco once its product is finished. The Times said Cisco is negotiating with three of its top engineers on whether to fund and commence the startup's operations.

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Cisco would not comment on the Times story.

Cisco has done this with two other internal startups -- Andiamo, which made the company's SAN switches; and Nuova, which developed Cisco's Nexus data center switches. In all three cases, the same three Cisco engineers are involved in the startup company formation, operation and product strategy and development: Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain and Luca Cafiero.

The three have deep roots in Cisco's Ethernet switching business, dating back to 1993. Andiamo was acquired by Cisco in 2002, with the purchase price based on SAN switch sales -- potentially up to $2.5 billion, Cisco said at the time. Nuova was acquired in 2008 for between $70 million and $678 million, also dependent on product sales.

But the startup spin-in strategy has also strained relations between Cisco and its internal engineering teams who were not selected to join the startup and then saw their own teams recruited away. The practice led to the departures of these engineers who then started up their own companies to compete with Cisco, sources said.

Sources say Insiemi has already recruited Tom Edsall, a Cisco Fellow and a lead ASIC architect of the company's Nexus and MDS switching lines (from the Nuova and Andiamo spin-ins); and Ronak Desai, the architect of Cisco's NX-OS FabricPath and Virtual Device Context software, and of the MDS SAN switch operating system. The startup may also have recruited Michael Smith, a distinguished engineer who worked on Cisco's Nexus 1000v virtual switch, sources say.

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Insiemi has also been granted full source code licenses to Cisco's NX-OS data center network operating system, the sources say. They also say Insiemi headquarters have been established for now in Cafiero's Palo Alto home.

Insiemi would develop Cisco's software-defined networking product line, according to The New York Times. Software-defined networking (SDN) allows an external controller to act as the brains of the switching and/or routing infrastructure, enabling software programmability and configurability without manual intervention on each and every network element.

The Nexus 1000v virtual switch would likely be the first "touch point" for the Cisco SDN controller, sources say.

SDNs are said to be a way to abstract the physical network from the logic with which to operate it, and to enable easier modification or feature extension. OpenFlow is supported by many in the industry as an API and protocol to enable SDNs.

Cisco has been tight-lipped on its OpenFlow/SDN strategy. SDNs are said to be a threat to Cisco's hardware dominance and profits in that it opens up proprietary or customized hardware to manipulation by an external element.

Cisco has said it plans to add OpenFlow to its Nexus switches, but beyond that, the company is not elaborating on its strategy to either embrace or combat SDNs.

In the previous internal startup ventures, Andiamo and Nuova both developed switches featuring custom Cisco ASICs with software very tightly coupled with these ASICs. Indeed, this continues to be Cisco's strategy, even with SDNs, Cisco CEO John Chambers recently noted in a roundtable with trade reporters.

So it's expected that Insiemi would develop an SDN controller, and perhaps other switching products, that tightly couple Cisco ASICs to the software control of associated switches. Whether OpenFlow is involved in the development -- or a Cisco proprietary SDN API and protocol -- is unclear at this point.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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