Cisco's SDN plan targets the WAN and access edge

At Cisco Live Europe, Cisco unveiled theAPIC Enterprise Module to bring software defined networking to the WAN and access edge.

This week, Cisco held its annual Cisco Live Europe Event in Milan. At the show, the company introduced a number of new products, including the Cisco APIC (Application Policy Infrastructure Controller) Enterprise Module that brings the benefits of software defined networks to the WAN and access edge. This announcement follows on the heels of its November launch, where Cisco announced the long-awaited acquisition of Insieme and unveiled the APIC controller for the data center.

The focus on the access edge and WAN is an interesting move for Cisco, as almost the entire SDN market has pointed their guns at the data center. Why? Well the data center has been through a tremendous amount of change. Private cloud, virtualization, NFV, more applications and other trends have made the data center a veritable cornucopia of changes that puts a heavy emphasis on the network. Now the network needs to be more agile, flexible and dynamic. Hence the intense focus from the vendor community.

But what about the WAN and access edge? Those areas have gone through at least as much change as the data center, and one could even argue more. The access edge used to be 90% wired and then augmented with wireless for a few Wi-Fi devices in areas like conference rooms. Today it’s flipped and the access edge is almost all wireless as almost every organization has seen a huge influx of not just wireless but wireless-only devices putting a heavy emphasis on signal quality and security.

The WAN is another area that needs to change. The current “hub and spoke” model has been in place now for as long as I can remember. That’s the model that I used the first time I ever designed a WAN way back in the early 90s. Hub and spoke seemed to work OK with traditional client/server applications, but it’s always been poor for Internet access as the traffic “trombones” up and down the spokes. This is the primary reason the industry has been talking about WAN transformation for the better part of 20 years.

Despite the need to transform the WAN, there has never been a really strong catalyst to get companies to shift – at least until now. The trends of mobile, cloud computing and video are heavily internet-dependent, making the traditional WAN a poor transport mechanism for these types of applications. To help with performance, Cisco has rolled out a number of features, such as PfR, iWAN and advanced QoS features, but many companies haven’t taken advantage of them because they are difficult to implement. Also, most companies manage WAN devices (as well as access switches) on a box-by-box basis through scripts, cut and paste or any other means to accomplish configuration changes quickly. Personally, I like to think I had mastered the CLI-driven “fast configuration change” methodology of “up arrow, cut, paste new command it, hit enter.” Sure, errors would occur but that was part of networking! This is one of the primary reasons that the largest cause of downtime is still human error, at 37%, according to ZK Research.

So we have this need to change but an environment that makes change difficult. What’s a network manager to do? Well, enter the Cisco Application Policy Infrastructure Controller Enterprise Module as a solution. Despite having a ridiculously long name, the solution actually solves a big problem today. The module sits above the WAN and access technology and acts as a single, programmable control point for the network. Big video conference coming up between the CEO and a key customer? Go ahead and configure a pipe with the proper settings to ensure high quality. Or better yet, have the video application tell the APIC Enterprise Module to make the change and then terminate the path when the call is over. The APIC Enterprise Module can simplify or even automate all of these tedious commands required to change a network and makes managing the access edge and WAN much simpler.

For enterprises, SDNs could actually have more business value than in the data center. SDNs in the data center are focused on optimizing IT process, which can have a tremendous amount of value. However, SDNs in the WAN and access edge can improve IT processes and the user experience of some critical applications, such as cloud-based apps and video. This can have a much bigger impact on the organization. To date, only a few other vendors such as Pertino and Aryaka can bring the agility and flexibility of SDNs to the WAN, but Cisco is the only mainstream network infrastructure vendor to have solutions in the WAN, access edge and data center.

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