Software-defined networking touches every industry segment

Companies using Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure see success, proving SDN works

Software-defined networking touches every industry segment

There’s an inside joke in the software-defined networking industry that “SDN” stands for “still done nothing.” People say that because despite the tremendous hype around SDN, many customers remain confused about what it is, how to deploy it and what the benefits are. This is particularly true in the data center where the stakes are high and any kind of mistake can cost an organization millions of dollars.

About 21 months ago, Cisco launched its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) solution and threw its hat in the SDN ring. In practicality, ACI is a much broader solution. It uses the principles of SDNs but deals with much more than the network.

Because of the relative immaturity of SDNs and the fact that ACI is still relatively new, there is some industry chatter that ACI isn’t being adopted. Also, I think early in the cycle Cisco was talking about both Nexus switching deployments and ACI together, causing some confusion. Nexus is part of ACI but can be deployed independently. Nexus deployments might turn into ACI in the future but do not need to, as Nexus customers want the freedom of choice for their SDN solution. Many Cisco customers choose to implement a programmable network or programmable fabric.

As a Cisco watcher, I’ve been curious with respect to what ACI traction has been like. On the last earnings call, Cisco stated it has over 1,800 paying ACI customers, which makes it the market lead by number of deployments. However, I wanted to get some detail behind what customers are doing with the technology. So, I recently asked the company to provide some customers that have deployed ACI and have realized some quantifiable benefits.

Below are some of the more interesting ACI customer use cases:


Symantec is one of the largest software companies in the world and a global leader in cyber security. The company was looking for a next-generation data center solution built on SDN to build a modern, agile environment that enables it to meet the needs of the digital world.

Symantec chose Cisco ACI as the solution to bring IT resources in house and make the operations team more efficient, while delivering significant cost savings and improving security. The automation capabilities, application templates and orchestration reduces human errors and the time needed to provision new resources to support development. Some interesting data points from the deployment:

  • $145 million in business benefits
  • 11-month payback
  • 87 percent faster application development cycle
  • 83 percent more efficient network operations
  • 40 times improvement in bandwidth
  • 441 percent return on investment

“The excitement of the software-defined approach is that it allows us to move at the speed of business and with Cisco ACI, we are a true enabler.”—Vince Spina, vice president of IT, Global Networking and Infrastructure Services, Symantec


Another interesting customer case study is Pulsant, a U.K.-based service provider that offers data center, cloud hosing and managed network services. The company was looking for a solution that would make it easier for staff to set up customer solutions, grow the business by moving into broader cloud solutions and automate the delivery of highly secure, agile services with open interfaces to support future technologies.

Pulsant leveraged both Cisco’s ACI and Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). The company also integrated F5 Networks into the solution through an ACI device package.

The deployment of the solution simplified customer provisioning by removing the boundaries between the physical and virtual workloads. Also, it automated a number of manual tasks to add new services and onboard customers much faster. Pulsant also saw an increase in data center agility combined with costs being cut by creating secure, open hybrid clouds.

Quantitative metrics from this deployment:

  • $7.8 million in discounted business benefits
  • 6.4-month payback
  • 85 percent reduction in staff time for provisioning
  • 75 percent reduction in staff time for hybrid deployment
  • 0 minutes of unplanned downtime since deployment

"With Cisco ACI, we are selling more cloud services, adding new cloud services, and onboarding customers faster without increasing staff." —Martin Lipka, Head of Connectivity, Pulsant

Other companies using Cisco’s ACI

Cisco provided a number of other examples in other verticals and geographies, some of which are listed below: 

  • NBC Universal – U.S. media and entertainment company
  • Cerner – supplier of health information technology solutions
  • Integra – U.S.-based service provider
  • Intuit – U.S.-based cloud financial service provider
  • Woolworths – Australian-based online grocery store
  • AVIT – Netherlands-based service provider
  • Sungard – U.S.-based service provider
  • Du – UAE telecommunications
  • KPIT – India IT consulting firm
  • NTT Docomo – Large mobile phone operator in Japan
  • Qatar University – Qatar higher educational institution
  • East Carolina University – U.S.-based higher educational institution
  • VENZO – Denmark hosting provider

Why customers choose ACI

In discussions with ACI customers, I tried to find out the reason why they chose ACI over other solutions. While every company had its own reasons, there were a few common points.

  • Turnkey solutions remove the complexity of deployment
  • Large ecosystem of technology partners
  • Fast payback of investment
  • Integrated network approach (common policy for physical and virtual workloads, including containers)
  • Automation capabilities
  • Addresses the needs of the data center holistically, not just the network automation

The SDN wars are underway, and although Cisco was late to the party, the market was still in its infancy when it launched ACI. Given the company’s high market share in the network, I expect Cisco will continue the momentum.

This should be good news for the rest of the SDN industry. And Cisco’s marketing efforts will cause a “rising tide” that will lift all boats. A similar effect was seen when Cisco moved into VoIP, Wireless LAN and converged infrastructure.

While these are highlights of many Cisco wins, the important point is that SDN works and SDN is ready for prime time now. This is good news for the entire SDN market and customers looking to deploy the solution.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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