Cisco spin-in Insieme Networks comes out of stealth, sort of

Insieme Networks, Cisco's SDN spin-in, laid out its Application-Centric Infrastructure vision at Cisco Live, but declined to describe its products.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Insieme Networks, Cisco's much-discussed, stealth subsidiary, debuted at Cisco Live this week, but exact details of the company's technology remain unclear.

When Cisco quietly formed the company last year, many believed Insieme would develop Cisco's answer to software-defined networking (SDN), but then the company started hiring application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) engineers, which indicated it was working on much more than software. Shortly after that, an insider leaked to SearchSDN that the company was working on a massive fabric controller that could orchestrate the entire data center, including networks, Layer 4-7 services, storage and compute. After these revelations, we wondered if Insieme was building something that would do for the entire data center what Juniper QFabric is attempting to do for the data center network.

Our ASICs will deliver optimal forwarding schemes, increased visibility and telemetry information for applications. … We will also introduce [100 Gigabit Ethernet] optical transceivers that use a customer's existing 10 Gb cabling.

Soni Jiandani,
senior vice president of marketing, Insieme

This week Insieme offered very few details about the products it's building, but the technology vision it laid out at Cisco Live indicates the company is taking an "all of the above" approach. Insieme is Cisco's response to some aspects of SDN. It's also a network-based system that will orchestrate security and network services out of the gate, as well as storage and compute down the road.

Insieme Networks' Application-Centric Infrastructure

Insieme Senior Vice President of Marketing Soni Jiandani said the company is building an "application-centric infrastructure" that will make the network reactive to applications. The technology will "orchestrate and integrate networks, security and network services that need to be delivered to applications," she said.

This will be extended to accommodate storage and compute eventually. The technology will use a common policy operational model that is exposed via a unified API and supports standard interfaces like JavaScript Object Notation and XML, Jiandani explained.

Ultimately, the strategy will make it so enterprise application development teams and infrastructure teams can understand each other's needs and then program networks to deliver automatically. This approach sounds similar to what SDN startup Plexxi has been developing with its Affinity Networking technology.

"We are going to provide a view and the ability for application developers to define the connectivity requirements from the infrastructure [for their] applications," said Ish Limkakeng, vice president at Insieme. "They define that [application] and it gets pushed to the infrastructure. It's like the service profile concept of UCS [Unified Computing System]. Once that's defined, it's automated throughout the infrastructure, so wherever the application lives, that application profile will follow."

A role for ASICs and high-end switches

Based on these statements, one might conclude Insieme is building a software system to orchestrate all this, but the company is focused on much more than that. Insieme is building its own ASICs and using merchant silicon, Jiandani said. High-end switches appear to be a part of the solution.

"Our ASICs will deliver optimal forwarding schemes, increased visibility and telemetry information for applications," she said. "We will also introduce [100 Gigabit Ethernet] optical transceivers that use a customer's existing 10 Gb cabling." These transceivers will offer new levels of investment protection since when a transceiver fails, Insieme will not force customers to replace the line card it was plugged into.

In a separate interview, Jiandani admitted Insieme's technology, at its most basic level, will be "best-of-breed" hardware that customers could choose to deploy in a traditional network architecture, indicating Insieme's portfolio will consist of high-end data center switches.

Given that Cisco just announced the Nexus 7700, the most powerful and high-density data center switch the company has ever built, it would seem Insieme's products and the Nexus product line would fit together. Yet Insieme and Cisco steadfastly refused to confirm this. Insieme will offer product details later this year and will explain then if there is a connection between the two portfolios, said David Yen, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's data center technology group.

Insieme: VMware overlays are passé

Software will clearly play a role in the portfolio, but it's difficult to tell what that means in terms of SDN and network virtualization.

"Our goal is to take a systems-based approach rather than a box-by-box approach," Jiandani said. "And we want to provide the flexibility of software with the security and performance of hardware."

Insieme is positioning itself as a step beyond SDN. Jiandani described virtual network overlays like VMware's Nicra-based technology as "first-generation" SDN that actually increases complexity.

"With software-defined [network] virtualization you are increasing points of management and leaving it to the user to correlate between the physical world and the virtual world," she said. And overlays only add another point of management, she said.

While Cisco has slowly been building out its SDN strategy with its Cisco ONE architecture, Insieme has its sights set on something bigger. SDN is just a part of the overall vision. In fact, onePK, the southbound interface that Cisco is evangelizing, will be just another API that plugs into Insieme's system.

Brad Casemore, research director with IDC, said he could only offer theories as to what exactly Insieme is working on, given that the company only laid out a general technology vision. However, he said Cisco and Insieme are seeking to differentiate their approach to network virtualization "relative to what is offered today by VMware."

"What's obvious: Cisco and Insieme both see VMware as a serious threat to their data center aspirations," Casemore said.

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