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Summary:

Cisco on Wednesday unveiled its plans to counter the threats to its business from startups pushing open networking hardware and software built on merchant silicon. What it didn’t do was launch Insieme.

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photo: Screenshot of Cisco Live

Cisco on Wednesday put executives from its spin out Insieme onstage and billed it as a launch for the secretive engineering effort, but instead of  providing hard details on that effort, they delivered an hour-long Cisco-focused vision on the future of data center networking. As part of that, Cisco announced a new software-based fabric and a line of switches all under the rubric of “application-centric infrastructure.”

But the networking giant did little more than tease the future products on Insieme, with Soni Jiandani of Insieme Networks (pictured) noting that the spin out’s products would involve hardware using both merchant silicon and custom-built chips combined with software that would offer a systems based approach to the challenges facing the data center. Cisco sees a completely virtualized, self-aware and dynamic network as the solution to those challenges.

To deliver on this solution in the meantime, Cisco plans to launch the aforementioned DFA software and a new line of switches.

The vision behind all of these buzzwords is one we’ve covered before — namely that networking has not evolved to the level of abstraction that computing has. That means network engineers are still unable to adapt the physical infrastructure to the needs of the applications running on that infrastructure. This makes networks a bottleneck in building out applications and it also makes it challenging and expensive to scale out a network.

Cisco customers want to get skilled staff out of the data center by automating as much of the infrastructure as possible in software and ensuring that the network can detect problems in applications and let network teams solve those problems without shutting down the underlying infrastructure. Also, the network has to scale out to deliver infrastructure to meet the needs of the coming big data era.

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This is the same vision that compelled VMware to buy Nicira, the launch of software-defined networks and the evolution of a variety of startups such as Boundary, Plexxi and Lyatiss that are trying to offer deeper insight in to the network as well as tools to let the network adapt to problems on the fly. Facebook is even building its own networking fabric to solve the same issues. But in many cases those efforts require multiple vendors coming together and expertise on the customer side.

This is where Cisco plans to come in with its new products: the dynamic fabric automation software and two new switches in the Nexus 7700 line. The DFA software will overlay the physical infrastructure and will have a management platform that can be accessed via open APIs. Cisco says the platform will be built on open standards, although it doesn’t say which. I’ll be briefed later today and will update the story.

The largest of the new switches will offer up to up to 83Tbps of overall switching capacity on a box that can have 384 40-Gbps ports or 192 100-Gbps ports. Those switches are set to arrive in July with a superfast IO module set to arrive in the second half of 2013. Cisco is summing up its vision with a theme of moving from a “network of boxes” to a systems approach. From a blog post written by Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior:

SDN promised to meet the needs of new apps by delivering greater scale, programmability, centralized management and automation. But SDN, to date, can’t meet the needs of applications because it mimics the old model of networking. It doesn’t unify physical and virtual. It is flow-based (focused on individual networking elements), and not object-oriented (creating a configurable system of all IT resources). It can’t offer dynamic centralized policy management, programmability because it is constrained by old proprietary-standards model.

And for a hardware nerd like myself, the most interesting tidbit from this conference wasn’t the “systems level plan” on how Cisco will shore up the threat posed by the break up of its networking “black boxes” into modular and open components that run software built by companies that are not Cisco. Instead, I was entranced by Cisco pointing out that on the optics side it has made a transceiver that lets customers upgrade their 10 gigabit Ethernet ports to 40 gigabit-capable ports without swapping out existing cables. Those transceivers will be out before the end of 2013.

I’ve been obsessed with the high port costs for 10 gigabit Ethernet (compared to 1 gigabit Ethernet) and having continual conversations about what’s next after 10 gigabit Ethernet with many data center operators. The webscale guys are already moving to 40 Gigabit Ethernet and eyeing 100 gigabit Ethernet while many in the enterprise are reluctantly accepting 40 gigabit because that’s where they think their carrier partners are going.

So while startups and big companies like Quanta or Pica8 building out cheaper boxes will put pressure on the price for 10 gigabit ports, Cisco is countering with a cheaper way to lock those buyers in for at least one more product cycle upgrade. I suspect that if we peel back the layers of this announcement we’ll see that Cisco is offering customers simplicity at the price of locking themselves into some really amazing hardware.

It’s possible that Cisco is willing to support multi-vendor environments, which would be a large step for its customers and Cisco, but that’s not entirely clear. It certainly talked about supporting multiple hypervisors and OpenStack, but that’s not the same as building a networking fabric that spans gear from Arista or Juniper. Stay tuned for more.

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