Why Cloud Is Forcing Cisco to Embrace Open Source

Cisco’s (s csco) cloud computing ambitions might be judged by outsiders as being centered around selling servers and networking gear to cloud data centers, but recent developments show that such an assessment might not be entirely fair. The networking giant has been forced to reassess its business in a major way lately, and, at long last, it appears as if Cisco understands that open source software will be critical to its cloud success.

At least, Lew Tucker, chief technology officer of Cisco’s cloud computing division, appears to get it. At the OpenStack Design Summit last week, Tucker took the stage and explained how he learned long ago that IT is all about the developers, something he’s now applying to his work within Cisco. Cisco’s involvement in OpenStack — an open source cloud project pushing an open cloud computing platform — was the immediate result of Tucker’s vision, but now Cisco is taking it a step further by contributing Network as a Service (NaaS) as a first-class OpenStack service on par with the computing and storage components that currently underpin the OpenStack platform. As proposed, NaaS would give OpenStack developers the ability to easily create and manage virtual networks using simple APIs.

Presently, OpenStack is comprised of two primary components — OpenStack Compute and OpenStack Object Storage — but Cisco seems to think that cloud networking is just as important, and it’s difficult to argue with its logic. (In fact, Cisco isn’t alone in pushing for OpenStack network services.) In Tucker’s world of catering to developers and of providing “everything as a service,” fairly advanced network management will be critical to achieving a robust cloud computing experience, and, thus to attracting developers.

Cisco describes its vision for OpenStack NaaS thusly:

OpenStack: NaaS provides a network abstraction layer and set of APIs … to enable:

  • Requesting and acquiring network connectivity by OpenStack:Compute for interconnecting two VM instances , both single virtual network (single vnic) or multi vnics to different virtual networks.
  • Network Services (e.g. firewall, load balancers, Wide Area Acceleration Services) insertion at the appropriate virtual networks; and dynamically request “adaptive” network resources.
  • Any OpenStack applications or services that needs Network resources visibility or consumption, examples: DR applications, Network Health / Monitoring Services, Chargeback / Billing services and so on.
  • Network resources that are required to interconnect OpenStack “Zones” or geographically dispersed compute/storage resources.
  • Network resources required to support new Services like Virtual Private Cloud, enterprise extensions.
  • In future, this NaaS could be expanded to support SLA, Network level QoS and other network based auditing/monitoring services.

What does Cisco get from all this altruism, from giving OpenStack developers networking capabilities as a free service? As Tucker explained, Cisco’s involvement in OpenStack helps it learn and understand what’s going in the world of cloud infrastructure and, more importantly, will let Cisco support its customers running OpenStack on their Cisco gear. Already, Tucker noted, Cisco is offering guidance for running OpenStack on Cisco’s blade and rackmount server lines. And selling its expensive UCS systems and new containerized data centers is where Cisco will make its money in the cloud data center.

A cliche among IT circles is that nobody ever got fired for buying Oracle, and the same might go for Cisco’s high-end converged infrastructure products, too. If enterprises and service providers can be certain that OpenStack will run optimally on Cisco gear, it’s a lot easier to write the checks for that gear. Companies want to save money on software where possible, and service providers want to attract developers away from competitive cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (s amzn), and a healthy OpenStack helps them achieve these goals because it saves them from relying on proprietary cloud platform software like VMware (s vmw).

Cisco still will sell software that offers more advanced network control, of course, and even software that resides up the stack, such as its newly acquired newScale technology. But there is a large contingent of application developers and even CIOs that are very excited about the concept of a core set of open-source cloud components that create a vibrant ecosystem. Even AT&T is building a private cloud based on OpenStack. The better Cisco can make that software and the more tightly it can attach itself to that software, the better Cisco looks when its time to buy new boxes.

We’ll hear a lot more about Cisco’s cloud computing vision at our fast-approaching Structure 2011 conference June 22-23 in San Francisco, where Lew Tucker will be on hand for a fireside chat with Stacey Higginbotham.

Images courtesy of Cisco.