Cisco Slims Its SDN Story Down to ONE Controller

Cisco Slims Its SDN Story Down to ONE Controller

Cisco plans to apply software-defined networking (SDN) and policy management across three major areas — the WAN, the data center, and the access network — in an ambitious plan that, in a sense, turns the entire network into one product.

Cisco will start licensing groups of products, rather than selling them box-by-box, a nod to the increasing importance of software. And its SDN strategy is getting a slimmer marketing message: Cisco will emphasize the Insieme controller, known as the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), over its OpenDaylight controller, the XNC.

Executives outlined many of these ideas at Cisco Live in Milan recently. The U.S. press got a detailed explanation during a telepresence session with executives Wednesday.

The emphasis on APIC actually does reflect that controller’s importance to Cisco’s plans, but it also streamlines the company’s SDN marketing. Cisco has thrown a lot of acronyms at SDN: ONE, ACI, onePK, oneDK, ESP, EPN, APIC. … It felt like Cisco had half a dozen SDN stories that were overlapping in vague ways.

“A lot of feedback we’ve had is: too many controllers,” said Rob Lloyd, Cisco’s president of development and sales. Now there’s just APIC, which — as Cisco previously stated — is going to apply policy across the entire network.

A Matter of Policy

Policy is at the heart of Cisco’s SDN strategy. The APIC will reach across those three domains — the WAN, the data center, and the access network — and it will work with Cisco’s older equipment, too. True, APIC was introduced with the Nexus 9000, the platform built by spin-in Insieme. And even the Nexus 9000 requires a software upgrade to support APIC. (Currently shipping pre-APIC versions are being called “standalone” 9000s.) But at it announced in Milan, Cisco intends to outfit APIC to work with the company’s installed base of gear as well.

What about XNC? That controller was announced with Cisco Open Network Environment, or ONE (the pre-Insieme SDN launch), and is Cisco’s version of the OpenDaylight controller. It will live on and will be Cisco’s vehicle for SDN in multivendor environments.

APIC, though, will be the “primary vehicle for customer deployment” whenever it’s just Cisco’s gear that’s in play, said Rob Soderbery, senior vice president of Cisco’s Enterprise Networking Group.

The APIC also becomes the only one place in the network where you have to program the policy rules. “You no longer have to go and turn on a specific access port. … You don’t have to go into the WAN and manage quality-of-service on a link-by-link basis,” Soderbery said.

Policy itself is being simplified, too. “Policy” can refer to multiple things, such as delivery priorities — video traffic getting preference over emails, for instance — or access policies that dictate who gets to see what information. Under APIC, “all of that becomes a single policy,” Soderbery said.

(APIC is still on schedule to arrive in the second quarter of this year, Lloyd said.)

Cisco also wants orchestration to expand its reach throughout a network’s hybrid cloud. Services and virtual machines should be movable between, say, a company’s private cloud and multiple public clouds such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, Soderbery said. As part of this plan, Cisco envisions VLANs being able to span multiple clouds.

SDN Goes Turnkey

What all this creates is a network that can be sold as a unit, where all the various routers, switches, and data-center racks are bound together by policy enforced by the APIC.

That kind of turnkey product is what customers want, particularly in the enterprise, Lloyd said. (The same craving for simplicity was noted by panelists who closed out the Open Networking Summit earlier this week. )

“It’s a much different conversation than separating the control plane and the data plane, which is actually sort of losing interest,” Lloyd said — meaning that enterprise customers are very interested in SDN’s possible effects but don’t want to discuss details about how it works.

To match this strategy, Cisco will start selling its gear not as individual products, but as realms of the network, provided together under software licenses. “Product brands will begin to become less important than the suite itself,” Lloyd said. (I think he was referring to sales and marketing, although this might have implications for engineering as well). “The challenge for us will be simplification and packaging.”

Just how these software-license packages will be priced is still in the planning stage. Cisco plans to reveal details at Cisco Live in San Francisco in May, Lloyd said.

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