Application aware: Cisco charts path to service-defined infrastructure

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When the CEO of a $48 billion titan turns out to personally host a product launch, you can be sure that the product is deemed critical to the future of the company.

Last week, Cisco CEO John Chambers formally announced the purchase of the remaining minority stake in Insieme and launched its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) fabric at an event held at the British Museum in London. He was joined by the company’s president of development and sales Rob Lloyd, and Insieme senior vice president Soni Jindiani, along with a cast of six other vendors and five customers, to make the case for ACI.

Wasn't this just Cisco's SDN coming out party, I hear you ask? Actually, there is more to it than that. The ambition is to pull resources into a dynamic and responsive entity that can help administrators streamline configuration, simplify troubleshooting and tune application performance.

ACI includes an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), the Nexus 9000 range of switches, and enhanced versions of the NX-OS operating system. Getting to 60 terabits per second of switching capacity was not possible without tinkering at the ASIC [application-specific integrated circuit] level. Cisco's route to the software-defined data centre is through hardware re-design.

But APIC, available from April 2014, steals the show. Designed to be the unified point of automation and management for the ACI fabric, it allows policy programming and health monitoring. APIC is a clustered software controller capable of managing up to one million endpoints. Network admins take note: it operates independently of switch data and control planes, allowing the network to respond to endpoint changes, even when APIC is offline. APIC needs application network profiles to define unique requirements of each application and associated interdependencies with network infrastructure resources.

Late to the game, but moving beyond SDN, then.

Underscoring the application workload focus of ACI, Cisco brought many friends to the party. IBM, Citrix, Microsoft, F5, EMC, RedHat, NetApp, SAP, VCE and Symantec were there with more than nice words; they have committed resources to align products and/or platforms to ACI. These companies span the orchestration, hypervisor, security and application segments, suggesting room for future growth of this ecosystem. Of particular significance is ACI’s attention to openness. Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches can work with generic silicon and SDN controllers, and support RESTful APIs and extensions to virtual switches and OpenStack.

The large and no doubt growing ecosystem is good news for customers. As we found during our SDN panel at IP EXPO 2013, for most organisations, the implementation of SDN will be more of an incremental process. Disparate networking elements need to be integrated with the software layer, most likely to enhance facilitation of specific business processes. Ongoing support from existing suppliers will be critical.

Enterprise infrastructure managers today will be keen to exploit capabilities that can improve performance and reliability, while reducing cost of operations all at the same time. Whether they take a network-centric view or a broader application and data centre view, will determine how well ACI fits.

However, it is the longer view that makes ACI potent. Earlier this year, Cisco acquired data virtualisation company Composite Software specifically to augment its analytics portfolio. Built around a data abstraction layer to enable virtualisation, Composite frees users from constraints of physical data location. Business views and data services are facilitated by federated approaches, strengthening Cisco’s data in motion proposition.

Cisco’s hard to miss uber-campaign, the Internet of Everything (IoE), anticipates 50 billion interconnected things that will communicate with each other. Both Composite and IoE call for greater awareness of the applications that will be serving up traffic and data. Enter ACI.

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