Cisco SDN strategy still centers on premium hardware

At Cisco Live this week, the company is heavily promoting its Cisco SDN strategy, but premium hardware is still at the center of the plan.

As Cisco embraces SDN, the company is doing everything it can to convince its customers that premium hardware is essential to the technology.

Software-defined networking (SDN) -- and its ability to run on off-the-shelf network silicon -- has prompted many people to wonder if network hardware is entering an era of commoditization, a trend that would kill the high margins Cisco makes on its switches and routers.

Cisco has consistently rejected this notion. Now the company is making premium hardware the foundational element of its SDN strategy.

While unveiling a slate of new switching and routing products at Cisco Live Orlando on Monday, Cisco Senior Director of Enterprise Networking Marketing Inbar Lasser-Raab began her presentation with an overview of the Cisco ONE architecture, the company's SDN strategy. A year ago Cisco wouldn't have bothered mentioning SDN while introducing something as meat and potatoes as the Catalyst 6800, a high-performance, campus core switch.

Now, with all of the attention being paid to SDN, Cisco has no choice, but the company wants customers to know that SDN needs premium hardware in the data-forwarding layer to live up to its greatest potential.

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"You don't put a jockey on a donkey and win a race," said Rob Soderbery, senior vice president of Cisco's enterprise networking group. "You need to put that jockey on a racehorse. Then you leave your competitors behind."

All this dovetails nicely with Cisco's continued evangelism around ASICs (application-specific integrated chips). A significant portion of the industry says merchant silicon is changing the economics and the pace of innovation in the networking industry. Cisco's rivals are competing on the notion of writing software on top of merchant silicon.

But CEO John Chambers said ASICs are essential to the Cisco SDN strategy. During his Tuesday keynote at Cisco Live, Chambers said Cisco is focused on transitioning from a networking company to an IT company. Cisco ONE and custom ASICs will both play a key role in that transition, he said.

"Half of the cost of ASIC development is the software that goes into it," Chambers said.

Cisco is also rolling out a new generation of "programmable" ASICs, chips that are software-upgradeable so they can support new protocols as they emerge. The Unified Access Data Plane (UADP) chip debuted in the Catalyst 3850. Now it's in the new supervisor module for the Catalyst 4500 and in the Catalyst 6800ie (Instant Access). Cisco will probably use chips like the UADP to add support for new SDN protocols as they emerge from organizations like the IRTF and the Open Networking Foundation.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.

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