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Cisco vs. VMware vs. BYOC: Bright-box war heats up

Big vendors like HP are jumping on the bright-box bandwagon, which could represent a new angle in the Cisco ACI-VMware NSX showdown.

Just in case you somehow missed the latest SDN-related markenclature, "bright-box" (old name, white box) is the new name for gear based on merchant silicon. I'm not sure why we needed a new term for white label. Then again, I'm getting pretty good at making the case that big data is just data warehouse 2.0 with MapReduce in place of extract load transform (ELT) preprocessing, but I digress.

Today's question is whether the growing crowd of bright-box vendors -- which now include HP -- will significantly chip away at Cisco's ACI plans to the benefit of VMware NSX. Or will these efforts impact both Cisco and VMware by enabling BYOC (bring your own controller)?

For now at least, HP does not seem to be throwing up its hands and walking away from in-house-designed switching; existing customers still have plenty of familiar direct upgrade SKUs to consider for refresh planning. Like Dell, HP still does a fair bit of rack-filling with bundled solutions -- at least to the data center core. It's more likely hedging its bets in the footsteps of other brand-name vendors should commoditization burn down the medium business market. AmazonFacebookGoogle gets all the attention for SDN, but it's in the middle where vendors take notice.

If a new-to-you vendor like Cumulus Networks pops on your radar, maybe it doesn't register beyond catching the first paragraph of a press release. But if an established player like HP rolls into an existing customer with shiny, new and pre-certified Cumulus switch part numbers festooned with HP and VMware stickers on the bezel, is that different? Maybe.

VMware driving bright-box success?

The success of white-label -- sorry, bright-box -- technology may well come down to VMware. While network admins are excited about the promise of SDN, many are still sitting on the sidelines waiting for market consensus. This is a reasonable approach when your career is dependent on keeping the lights on, and it's what happened with enterprise virtualization until VMware became the most popular option. HP can walk new tech into a customer who's not ready for SDN and retreat to established line gear if there's pushback. That's not a big help for bright-box or HP.

If, however, VMware can reach a market tipping point with NSX, the show is pretty much over. The definition of virtualization will be extended to include NSX overlay-based SDN, with pick-your-own commodity switches managed by vCenter. Then HP, Dell or even homebrew Supermicro racks will include bright-box from the outset.

Cisco's nightmare is not so much VMware chickens and bright-box eggs; it's a pincer movement by both, which inexorably squeezes our trusty Pantone 7477-colored boxes largely out of the data center. The old dog admin in me can't imagine that, but the technologist in me can't deny the ultimate power of markets and the sexy promise of programmable, or at least point-and-click, networks.

Meantime, Cisco Live will reveal …

All of these developments will make Cisco Live an intriguing place to be. As for me, I'm really looking forward to the event this year. If the crowd is peppered with excited and enabled network admins who heard the call and got engaged with DevNet in 2014, then ACI has a good shot. I'm not expecting a Cupertino-style Worldwide Developers Conference iOS reveal meeting, but the tent must at least have geeks white boarding real-world ACI implementations already in production in their environments back home. If, on the other hand, the HP booth is full of gleaming NSX hardware, reps with HP+VMware logos embroidered onto their polos and a lot of interested attendees, that's a problem for Cisco.

And for the record, as long as SDN is generating a fresh crop of new terms, markenclature is mine, invented here. If Wikipedia editors let me have a page, I'll link to it.

Next Steps

Comparing Cisco ACI and VMware NSX

Why Cisco may beat VMware among network engineers

Major differences exist between Cisco ACI and VMware NSX

This was last published in April 2015

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Will bright-box hardware help VMware topple Cisco?
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Too sarcastic, digresses and distracts from clarity with chickens and eggs. Find another article and print this one for firestarter ...
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