Cisco CTO Criticises Software-Only SDN

Cisco Live 2013 Padmasree Warrior CTO

Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior reveals strategic differences between Cisco and VMware around software-defined networking

VMware’s introduction on 26 August of its NSX network virtualisation platform ignited another round of speculation over whether the partnership between the company and networking giant Cisco Systems was fraying as the vendors compete in new markets.

VMware’s software-based offering – a combination of its own technology and that acquired last year when company bought software-defined networking (SDN) startup Nicira – came with a healthy list of support from such partners as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Juniper Networks, Brocade and Arista Networks.

Cisco Live 2013 Padmasree Warrior CTO

Cisco-VMware alliance

Noticeably absent was Cisco, which has partnered with VMware in such areas as its Unified Computing System (UCS) converged infrastructure solution, cloud computing and desktop virtualisation, as well as the creation of the company VCE. However, NSX promises to compete directly with Cisco’s Open Network Environment (ONE) SDN effort, leading to renewed talk that what had been a close relationship between Cisco, VMware and storage giant EMC – which owns VMware – is falling apart.

“For all the lip service given to [the Cisco-VMware alliance], that partnership for all intents and purposes is done,” Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, told eWEEK after the NXS announcement, adding that both companies want to be the “control points” in the data centre. “That relationship is all but over.”

VMware executives downplayed any potential conflict with Cisco, and the two companies the next day issued a press release naming several large enterprises that are using joint solutions from both vendors in such areas as private cloud, desktop virtualisation and the data centre.

Cisco-CTO-Padmasree-warriorCisco CTO Padmasree Warrior (pictured), in a post on the company’s blog on 29 August, also pushed back at the speculation, saying that VMware is “an important partner to Cisco, and we expect to continue our close collaboration around private cloud and desktop virtualisation”.

However, Warrior also said the two companies had different views of networking, and that there are significant limitations to VMware’s software-only approach with NSX. With ONE, Cisco is taking what executives say is an application-centric approach.

“Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is an innovative secure architecture that delivers centralised application-driven policy automation, management and visibility of physical and virtual networks,” Warrior wrote. “It’s built upon a fabric foundation that delivers best-in-class infrastructure by combining hardware, software and ASIC innovations into an integrated system. The architecture provides a common management framework for network, application, security and virtualisation teams – making IT more agile while reducing application deployment time.”

Software-based approach

There are a number of problems with software-based approaches to network virtualisation, she said. It doesn’t scale, and on its own, doesn’t provide real-time visibility into both the physical and virtual infrastructure. There’s also a lack of such features as support for multiple hypervisors and integrated security, along with other problems.

“This loosely coupled approach forces the user to tie multiple third-party components together adding cost and complexity in day-to-day operations as well as throughout the network lifecycle,” Warrior wrote. “Users are forced to address multiple management points and maintain version control for each of the independent components. Software network virtualisation treats physical and virtual infrastructure as separate entities, and denies customers a common policy framework and common operational model for management, orchestration and monitoring.”

Businesses want their infrastructures to enable them to more quickly run new services and applications, more easily manage them and to scale as the application demands. Such business needs are best met by tightly integrated software and hardware, she said.

Warrior’s comments echo concerns that some analysts also have about NSX.

“One of the limitations of NSX is that it does try to do everything in software,” Kerravala said, adding that such an approach may be good for such jobs as creating overlays, but makes it more difficult to do such tasks as security.

That is where VMware’s partnerships come in, from networking hardware from HP, Dell and Juniper to solutions with HP and Brocade that will help offer unified visibility into physical and virtual environments to alliances with security firms McAfee, Symantec and TrendMicro.

Opportunity for collaboration

Despite the different approaches of the two vendors, VMware executives said NSX represents another opportunity to collaborate with Cisco.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to continue to build the partnership we have with Cisco,” VMware chief executive Pat Gelsinger told eWEEK. “We’ve had great success in many areas with them. NSX is going to be a great platform for Cisco infrastructure. I’ll point out that the customers we had on stage [at one of the VMworld keynotes] – those are big Cisco customers running NSX in their Cisco environments.”

Gelsinger said that whatever API or SDN service Cisco offers, it will be supported in NSX.

“Because the more value that they deliver in a programmatic way through the infrastructure, the more value we can give to our shared customers,” he said.

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Originally published on eWeek.