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Cisco SDN push: Commercial OpenDaylight controller, ACI progress

Shamus McGillicuddy

Cisco is advancing its SDN strategy on multiple fronts this week, announcing a new SDN controller based on the open source project OpenDaylight and shipping a line card for the Nexus 7700 that supports OpenFlow and onePK.

But the heart of Cisco SDN remains Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), the technology developed by its Insieme spin-in. While unveiling Extensible Network Controller (XNC), Cisco also highlighted ACI's customer momentum and growing partner ecosystem for ACI.

In a separate announcement this week, Cisco extended ACI control and programmability beyond the data center to the WAN and LAN. With two simultaneous releases in an already confusing SDN landscape, Cisco will face the task of differentiating the two offerings and better explaining which is right for varying customers.

Why onePK in the Cisco data center?

The F3-Series 10 Gigabit Ethernet line card for Cisco's Nexus 7700 chassis switches is available now. It supports onePK and OpenFlow 1.0 and is one of the first devices in Cisco's portfolio to support both technologies.

OnePK is an application programming interface (API) that gives engineers access to a programmable abstraction layer on Cisco's network hardware, said Shashi Kiran, Cisco's senior director of market management for data center, cloud and open networking. OnePK allows applications to access the capabilities and intelligence of switches and routers either directly or through an SDN controller.

"The lowest-hanging fruit is faster integration into the whole management and orchestration layer," Kiran said. "For service provider environments or massively scalable data center environments [whose engineers] are not necessarily looking for a controller-led approach but want deep programmatic access into the devices themselves for things like manipulating flow patterns, that's where we're seeing early use cases [for onePK] emerge."

The availability of onePK demonstrates that the technology is now more than just "marketiecture," said Christian Renaud, senior analyst for New York-based 451 Research.

"If OpenFlow did anything to Cisco, it forced their hand toward more programmability," he said. Going back to 2002, Cisco has talked about autonomic networking and programmable networks, but most of the time it was just vaporware or something that showed up as an API for network management. It never really got down to the switches and routers because the IOS guys just didn't want that to happen. This whole conversation around SDN made Cisco do something real about it. I think onePK is legit."

XNC: An OpenDaylight controller

Cisco announced the Extensible Network Controller 1.5, a rebranded and updated version of the Cisco ONE controller. It supports Cisco's onePK and OpenFlow 1.0 as southbound interfaces to data-forwarding devices.

XNC is the first commercial version of the open source controller software developed by the OpenDaylight Project, Kiran said. OpenDaylight hasn't yet shipped its first code release, but Cisco is moving forward with a controller anyway. It has expanded on the services the OpenDaylight controller offers, with slicing and custom-forwarding applications shipping on top, as well as an advanced high-availability and network state awareness capabilities.

Cisco SDN: ACI or onePK?

At least for now, the XNC controller is completely distinct from Cisco's ACI strategy, which comprises the Nexus 9000 switch series and the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). Cisco is the only network vendor on the market offering more than one SDN controller, but it may not be the last.

Cisco is adopting a "domain-specific" approach to SDN controllers, Kiran said. "The requirements of each domain are somewhat unique -- whether campus or data center -- and we don't want to force-feed all this functionality into one controller."

It makes sense that data centers, campus LANs and wide area networks might require different controllers, but Cisco needs to articulate things more clearly.

"Given that all of these [controllers] are for the most part slide-ware versus software … I don't know how they all line up," Renaud said. With multiple SDN technologies emerging, Cisco needs to articulate to customers how they all fit together, he said.

Regardless of how OpenFlow, onePK, the XNC controller and ACI fit together, Cisco is clearly banking on ACI and the APIC controller as its central SDN focus, said Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"It's the platform they want customers to adopt. The implication of that is: What does this mean for their other SDN initiatives? I think that's an open question," Casemore said.

Cisco is eager to highlight customer momentum with ACI but has little to say of customer movement on its other SDN initiatives. It claims it has 305 customers in the ACI pipeline who are exploring proofs of concept. It even described the size of the deals it is striking with customers, claiming the majority of them range from $100,000 to $1 million. Cisco said it is also training its channel partners on how to work with the technology, with 125 partners ready to go.

When asked what kind of momentum the former Cisco ONE controller -- now the XNC -- has enjoyed, Kiran said Cisco has received feedback "from tens of customers." The majority of people playing around with this controller were "trying to get exposure to SDN functionality," he said. "As we start to expand onePK and OpenFlow support, I expect traction to increase."

Cisco also added a few more partners who will tie their products into the APIC controller, including application delivery controller vendor A10 Networks, Cisco's firewall rival Palo Alto Networks, big data analytics vendors Cloudera and MapR and security vendor Catbird Security.

"Between VMware NSX and Cisco ACI, when you put the partner slides side by side, you see a lot of the same names," Renaud said. "These partners are selling guns and ammo to both sides of the war. Why sell to just half their addressable market when they can work with both sides?"

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director, or follow him on Twitter @ShamusTT.


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