Cisco wants to be the standard

Recent data center moves indicate push to define, not just support, standards

The first question that comes to mind when Cisco introduces a new technology that is similar to a standard being worked on in the IETF or IEEE is, why? Why release something well ahead of a standard that addresses the same requirement?

The answer is simple: for all the politically correct talk of supporting, adhering or complying with standards, Cisco is really trying to drive or define the standard. Cisco wants to be the standard, and by releasing something to its vast installed base months before a standard is ratified, its chances of becoming the standard increase manifold.

No other networking company has that luxury, because no other networking company has Cisco's market share. Cisco can use its market position to wield unparalleled influence and persuasion in the industry. Microsoft and Intel are the others; and IBM could do it too in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before Cisco and Microsoft, and perhaps Apple, eroded the Big Blue giant's power.

The most recent examples of Cisco's standards ambition is in the data center, with FabricPath and Overlay Transport Virtualization (OTV). FabricPath is a technology to scale data center fabrics by merging Layer 2 switching and Layer 3 routing together to eliminate Spanning Tree and have multiple active links reduce the latency for server-to-server traffic.

FabricPath is analogous to the Transparent Internconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL) standard being defined in the IETF - indeed, John McCool, Cisco's data center switching chief, even said FabricPath's launch at the Cisco Live! conference this week that it was a pre-standard version of TRILL. In a Cisco Live! session Wednesday afternoon, McCool said FabricPath was an attempt to drive the standard, much like Cisco did with the FibreChannel-over-Ethernet, for multipath/multihop unified data center fabrics.

McCool also said Cisco would adhere to TRILL once it's ratified in 2011 but by that time, FabricPath will have gained a foothold in the market among Cisco's data center switching base. The IETF and the industry at large may have no choice but to make TRILL more like FabricPath instead of Cisco making FabricPath more like TRILL. So FabricPath becomes the standard by default or de facto.

Same with OTV, which Cisco markets as a data center interconnection technology. OTV tunnels Layer 2 Ethernet frames through a Layer 3 infrastructure to interconnect physically dispersed data centers.

Sound familiar? Like some other Layer 2 tunneling techniques already on the market? MPLS? VPLS? Pseudowires?

The difference here is that those standard technologies are multipurpose techniques that can be applied to many applications in addition to data center interconnection. Cisco, meanwhile, is targeting OTV specifically at data center interconnection as a software utility on the Nexus 7000 switch.

Why not VPLS, which has broad industry support - even from Cisco?

"We're taking a much more aggressive approach in driving data center standards," McCool said at the Cisco Live! conference this week. "It's kind of the balance we're going to take - getting everybody on board much more quickly."

Or everybody on Cisco platforms much more quickly, tipping that balance McCool speaks of much more towards Cisco. But expect this strategy not only in data center, but in every market transition or adjacency Cisco addresses: if the market is new or in flux, the company, by way of its market presence and influence, has a good chance of not only driving the standard but defining it and actually being the standard. It's an ideal situation for Cisco, certainly, but not for anyone else.

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