Cisco ACI: Is It Wham! or Sam Cooke?

An odd little title, I think you will agree, but consider this: Wham! had a hit with “Freedom” and Sam Cooke sang “Chain Gang,” and I think you can now see my thought process. This post is going to investigate not the technical capabilities of Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), but rather what its market placement will mean to the software-defined networking (SDN) industry.

Firstly, Cisco’s Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), the brains behind its SDN product ACI, can only run on CISCO equipment. More importantly, APIC can only run on Nexus 9000 series switches. These are:

  • Not cheap
  • Only for the biggest environments.

So, what about those who have invested in Nexus 7000s and below? Well, up until the Cisco Live US conference, you were effectively legacy. However, Cisco recently stated that the APIC will now be able to overlay application workloads to older (read Nexus-only) switches. The first switch that will be able to have these policies is the Nexus 1K; the only issue is that a Nexus 9K series switch is still needed. Not looking so inviting now, is it? What is important here is that it is an overlay.

Now, what really interests me is not the technology but rather the viciousness of the marketing coming out of Cisco. It is very interesting; in fact, if Cisco were an animal I would say that that it is acting like a wounded one. It seems that the cold war has suddenly become very hot. Cisco appears very worried about what CEO John Chambers has called a “very small startup.”

As reported by Business Insider on Wednesday, May 14, Chambers sounded jubilant about that progress:

“You might have seen a small startup [Nicira] and VMware combine. They’ve been out there for five plus years. We’re taking almost all of those customers back. Momentum feels very, very good. I think you’ll see us knock ’em off one after another.”

Other things that smack of last-gasp fighting are his warning that it will take another one or two quarters before the Nexus 9K switches are selling well and his mention of having personally “probably called 100 CIOs in the last quarter.”*

Now, when John Chambers calls to talk Cisco’s SDN strategy, I suppose the CIOs will listen and they will get it—they will say that they buy into it. VMware has a product in the marketplace now and Cisco is still a couple of months away, so for John Chambers to say “we’re in extremely good shape in enterprise” could be disingenuous. To emphasize that, he later said: “I feel very comfortable with…how we’re going to embrace SDN and benefit from it. We’re going to lead on SDN.”

As the world’s biggest networking vendor, Cisco certainly could and should do that. It does have a major advantage on its side, and that is there is hardly a data center in the world that does not have Cisco in it. Furthermore, network changes do not happen overnight. Enterprises do not mess with their uptime. It may take several years before SDN is predominant in the marketplace—several years that Cisco has, but that others like VMware, OpenSwitch, etc. do not. Cisco can afford to be bullish in this market. It owns it.

If the interlopers fail to step up to the mark, start coming to market with sensible offerings, hit Cisco where it hurts, and sell this low and in bulk, Cisco will win this war. It is like a great bear, slow to waken but resolute once angered. So far, all we have seen is rhetoric from both sides, but make no mistake: Cisco will win if the current crop of SDN companies does not strike.

It does not help that VMware still keeps its NSX pricing secret. How can enterprises make judgements over differing technologies when a major facet of the decision tree is hidden from them? The rumor flying around is that NSX is not cheap and is sold per network port. Rumours hurt sales cycles. If NSX is sold by network port, then make that number a sensible price point. Sub $100 per port, less than the price of a decent NIC card. Then stack it high and sell it cheap. Aggressively grow market share at both ends of the corporate spectrum.

However, when all is said and done, if as a CIO/CTO I am not armed with full information, I cannot make a budget choice. Cisco has openly stated that ACI has a startup cost of $125K for an ACI controller with a Nexus 9300. Over to you, VMware.

* This and following quotes are from Julie Bort’s article, “John Chambers: Cisco Is Going To Crush VMware,” Business Insider, May 14, 2014.

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