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Cisco, VMware take SDN battle to policy arena

Jim Duffy | April 7, 2014
Cisco ACI and OpenStack/VMware's upcoming 'Congress' intended to keep customers in the fold.

LAS VEGAS -- The focus in SDNs and programmable networking is shifting to application policy, an area where vendors can instill their unique architectures and maintain customer dependency.

As more software-defined networking moves to open source software and bare metal switching based on merchant silicon, major vendors are taking the game to a higher level than configuration management of forwarding devices through a decoupled controller. Application policy is an area where they can continue to influence customer deployments and seed them with custom ASICs and interdependent software, bypassing the disaggregated hardware/software mode SDNs encourage.

"Application infrastructure policy becomes the next battlefield," said IDC analyst Brad Casemore at the Interop trade show and conference. "Open systems as a competitive proxy is not present here. It's vendor value-add."

Cisco, perhaps the vendor with the most to lose from the decoupled, disaggregated SDN model, is leading the charge towards application policy infrastructures with its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) fabric, Nexus 9000 switching line and OpFlex policy protocol. ACI is intended to maintain network intelligence in the switches and routers themselves by abstracting application policy instead of network infrastructure, and allowing the network to self-configure to adhere to and enforce those policies.

Implementation of the full ACI fabric depends on custom Cisco ASICs in the Nexus 9000 switches -- Cisco also uses Broadcom Trident II merchant silicon in them -- for VXLAN routing, and the OpFlex protocol is the southbound mechanism by which those policies are delivered to the infrastructure. In the application policy context, OpFlex is analogous to the open source-based OpenFlow protocol in the decoupled control/forwarding SDN architecture embraced by much of the networking industry.

But to acknowledge industry appetite for SDN openness, Cisco is submitting OpFlex to the IETF and the OpenDaylight open source SDN consortium, and is also contributing to the ACI Group Policy model and northbound API to OpenDaylight.

"Open source is a competitive advantage now," said Lauren Cooney, Cisco senior director of software strategy in the Chief Technology and Architecture Office. "It's a great way to interoperate among vendors and extend contributed code."

"Innovative and open companies make more money," Cooney said.

But Cisco is a founder of OpenDaylight, and many consider the vendor to be influencing the direction OpenDaylight takes so it's aligned with Cisco's own product development objectives. Indeed, OpenDaylight co-founder IBM, which is endorsing OpFlex along with Microsoft, F5, Citrix, Red Hat and Canonical, appears to be following Cisco's lead rather than co-piloting the consortium as it wrestles with its own SDN strategy. Observers have noted that reports surfaced earlier this year that IBM is shopping around its SDN business.

"IBM and Cisco don't share the same objectives in OpenDaylight," said IDC's Casemore during a breakfast briefing hosted by the market research firm. "Various vendors are jockeying for position in submissions and product roadmaps."


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