The Cisco SDN story to investors: Hardware matters, VMware no threat

Cisco hit the road to explain the Cisco SDN strategy to investors. The key messages: Hardware still matters in SDN … and VMware is no threat.

Cisco's CTO of Engineering Dave Ward made the investor rounds last week in New York to outline the Cisco SDN strategy. Reading between the lines, I think the Cisco wants to send Wall Street two clear messages: "SDN will not cannibalize our hardware business" and "VMware will not eat our network virtualization lunch."

Explaining Cisco Open Network Environment (ONE), which is still more vision than products, Ward said the technology will enable application-aware, dynamic virtual network provisioning, along with virtual network services from the cloud through the WAN and to the connecting campus.

"This is not just about orchestrating the cloud; it's about tying the cloud to the WAN to access for end-to-end orchestration," explained Ward in a busy midtown Manhattan restaurant.

Customers care more about network programmability to support specific applications than about an SDN buzzword, he said.

"In 2012, people said, 'Explain why SDN is good for me,' but in 2013 they are saying, 'I want a specific solution,'" explained Ward.

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Customers want the ability to spin up network instances dynamically to support a wide range of content and multimedia applications delivered from multiple clouds across the WAN and to a wide range of devices, branch offices and the campus.

"They don't want to treat their network in silos," said Ward.

One way to break down silos is to enable an SDN MPLS WAN that pulls Layer 2 over Layer 3 using network overlays that a network operator can dynamically provision in response to the need of applications and users. Those overlays will be accompanied by virtual Layer 4-7 services, like load balancing and firewalling.

Cisco ONE will enable all of this by exposing "bidirectional programmatic interfaces" or open APIs both above and below the orchestration layer, Ward said.

With open southbound APIs, engineers can programmatically configure devices, define data flows and create virtual networks segments. They will no longer have to go deep into CLI each device on the network. And northbound APIs will extract information on users, applications and availability out of the network for use in the orchestration layer for intelligent provisioning and integration into a broader cloud orchestration context -- such as OpenStack.

Cisco SDN plan: VMware and others can't compete

More than VMware or any other vendor, Cisco will have a deeper level of intelligence that links the underlying physical network and the software overlay, Ward said.

"The overlay networks are based on what the network can do and what is available," he said. Other vendors provision overlays without that depth of knowledge, which limits what they can do and also could cause problems for the underlying network.

Cisco's acquisition of Cariden helps Cisco tighten its link between the physical network and the overlay, Ward said. Cariden provides a network design and modeling tool that uses southbound protocols such as BGP and OpenFlow to scout out everything on the network and enable automation for IP/MPLS networks.

Cisco will use that technology to give applications visibility into available bandwidth, latency and other network conditions so that they can reactively trigger paths. This information can be used for traffic engineering and QoS across network segments -- also something competitors can't provide. All of this will result in better utilized networks and will raise the bar on service assurance and SLAs, Ward said.

Why Cisco's physical networks still matter

Overlay networks can work over any physical infrastructure, so how can Cisco prove that its bread-and-butter switches and routers still matter?

Cisco's physical networks are more important than ever, Ward said. Every virtual network environment lives on top of a physical infrastructure that will have to be more intelligent to be better linked to the virtual world. And these physical networks will have to provide more bandwidth and capacity than ever before.

Overlays may eventually reduce the amount of physical infrastructure customers need, but Cisco will adapt to that by selling SDN/programmability support services. He even hinted at sales models that center on selling software.

Where does VMware play into the Cisco SDN scenario?

Cisco and VMware have partnered closely in the past on networking inside the virtualization stack, but VMware appears to have a slim role in Cisco ONE.

VMware's role in Cisco network virtualization is now like that of any other hypervisor provider, Ward said. Cisco is now partnering with Red Hat and IBM. It also has a growing relationship with Citrix. "We don't sell hypervisors. We want to work with all of them. The hypervisor can sniff out what's happening on the network." But Cisco is also partnering with Red Hat and IBM.

Cisco ONE could feasibly bring about an important shift for SDN and network programmability, and the link between Cisco's virtual and physical infrastructure could set it ahead of competitors -- especially VMware. No one can know for sure until users have product in their hands. For now, Cisco is working with a group of 50 beta super-users that range from enterprises to cloud providers. We're looking forward to hearing the results. Cisco reps hint that word of these trials and/or product release could happen very soon -- maybe even this week.

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