Cisco ACI is now shipping, with $250K starter kits

Cisco ACI is now shipping, with starter kits available at $250,000. Network engineers will now measure ACI against VMware NSX and other overlays.

All the elements of Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) are officially commercially available and shipping to customers as of today. Cisco is also offering a series of ACI starter kits, which begin with a list price of $250,000.

Since introducing ACI, its data center SDN product line, Cisco has rolled out the technology gradually, beginning with various models of fixed Nexus 9300 and modular Nexus 9500 switches. But, deploying a Cisco ACI network wasn't possible until today, when the vendor made its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) available.

APIC, the SDN controller for ACI, will initially ship as a cluster of three hardware appliances, available in two versions. The M1 cluster, with a list price of $40,293, will be able to control up to 1,000 server edge ports in an ACI network. The L1 cluster, selling for a base price of $58,017, will control networks with more than 1,000 server edge ports.

While some enterprises might prefer a software-only option for the APIC controller, a hardware-first approach to a new product rollout is standard operating procedure for Cisco, said Christian Renaud, senior analyst at 451 Research.

"They want to control [deployments] with a Cisco-validated design on Cisco hardware to make sure it can handle a certain number of flows and workloads," Renaud said. "If it were on third-party, it would introduce variability. It's too early. They will open it up based on customer demands to virtual manifestations later. You have seen that with Cisco Call Manager and their contact center products."

"As a new product, Cisco wants to control the environment associated with it and delivering via integrated hardware will limit variables and should reduce customer issues," said Andrew Lerner, research director for Gartner. "That said, it is an interesting and stark contrast to alternative approaches like VMware NSX which are largely software-based."

Cisco ACI starter kits and licensing details

Cisco has 175 beta customers testing ACI today, up from the 70 companies Cisco said were testing the technology in May of this year. To encourage more customer interest, Cisco is offering a number of ACI starter kits in its price list. Each kit includes an APIC cluster, Nexus 9000 spine and leaf switches, 40 Gbps AOC optics for the uplinks between spine and leaf and ACI licensing for the switches. The starter kits range in price from $250,000 to $350,000. The cheapest one ships with two Nexus 9336Q spine switches and four Nexus 9396PX leaf switches and 8 optics.

"They're trying to get the most likely candidates for ACI to adopt this as early as possible [with these starter kits] because the financial world is watching closely," said Brad Casemore, research director for IDC.

The starter kits are first and foremost for organizations who want to experiment with Cisco ACI, Renaud said. "This is for the price-sensitive early adopters who are trying to figure out what benefits they can gain from ACI, the big cloud operators, Web-scale data centers and financial services."

Cisco's Nexus 9300 and 9500 switches have been built to run in either standard mode with the NX-OS software that runs on all of Cisco's data center switches, or in an ACI mode. Cisco will charge software licenses to operate Nexus switches in ACI mode, but only for ports on leaf switches. Spine switches will not require Cisco ACI licenses.

"You will have a software license per leaf, but no licenses per spine and no additional licenses on the controller side,"said Thomas Scheibe, director of product management for Cisco's Insieme business unit. "We want to make it easier for customers to budget for what it will cost to launch ACI."

Cisco will not charge licenses for the number of server hosts or virtual machines connected to an ACI network, Scheibe said, a reference to the licensing models that many network overlay vendors offer, particularly VMware NSX.

Many IT organizations will now face the difficult task of understanding which approach costs more -- hardware-centric Cisco ACI or a software product  such as VMware NSX.

"Due to the requirement to buy [Cisco ACI] hardware, the entry level price will be significantly higher versus alternative solutions like VMware NSX that allow you to smart very small," Gartner's Lerner said.

"For organizations that are in a hardware refresh cycle, the hardware requirement won’t be a big issue. But customers that have recently upgraded hardware … within the last two to three years … will have less of an appetite to take on new hardware purchases," he said. "As you scale the environment and add more servers to the mix, the delta in costs between the solutions will drop. There is also a ton of variability here for both Cisco ACI and VMware NSX in terms of discount structure in a given deal."

New lines cards for the modular Nexus 9500

Cisco announced several new line cards for the modular Nexus 9500 switches series, most of which are not intended for ACI networks. The company will start shipping a new series of X9400 line cards for the Nexus 9500, aimed at delivering more bandwidth into traditional data center networks.

There are two variations of 48 10 Gigabit Ethernet port line cards, both with additional 4 40 Gbps QFSP+ ports on board. The third X9400 line card ships with 32 40 Gbps QSFP+ ports. The fourth member of the X9400 line card series, which won't ship until the last quarter of 2014, has 8 100Gbps CFP2 ports. Another line card in the already announced X9600 series, 12 100 Gbps CXP/QSFP28 ports, will also ship toward the end of the year.

Finally, Cisco announced one new ACI line card for the Nexus 9500, the X9536PQ. This line card can only support leaf ports in an ACI network, with a total of 36 40 Gbps QFSP+ ports. To date, Cisco is shipping only one Nexus 9500 line card for spine configurations, the X9736PQ, which was announced in May.

Cisco also started shipping a new model in its Nexus 3000 line, the Nexus 3164Q, which has 64 40 Gbps QFSP+ ports. This switch is the first in the 3000 line to ship with an NX-OS software image that is identical to the Nexus 9000 switches, offering simpler network operations to engineers.

The large amount of line cards for non-ACI deployment are all based on merchant silicon rather than custom application-specific integrated chips (ASICs). The ACI line card is based on the "merchant-plus" approach Cisco has advanced, combining off the shelf networking chips with custom Cisco silicon for advanced ACI capabilities.

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