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Cisco invests heavily in software-defined networks

Posted: 08 Nov 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Cisco  software-defined network  SDN  ASIC  Insieme Networks 

Cisco is muscling up aimed towards software-defined networks (SDN) with the release of its proprietary switches and software. The push to SDN is intended to simplify the jobs of setting up and running large networks. The concept of SDN does that in part by cutting through a rat's nest of complex ASICs and APIs companies such as Cisco, pushing jobs instead to apps written in high-level languages, often run on x86 servers.

Cisco aims to deliver much of the promise of SDN with its latest products that include both high-level software and new ASICs. Insieme Networks, Cisco's third and potentially largest internally incubated start-up to date, developed the recently introduced switches and software.

The networking giant could lavish as much as $863 million on Insieme if it meets undisclosed revenue targets. Cisco announced Wednesday it will acquire the portion of Insieme it does not already own after investing about $135 million to date on the novel spin-in start-up.

Analysts praised the Insieme products for delivering some of the promises of SDN. However, the proprietary nature of the products could scare off some of its potential customers in large data centres, they said.

"Its strength and weakness is its vertical integration," said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at market watcher ZK Research. "Cisco will get an early-mover advantage with features others don't have, but it will scare others away as vendor lock in."

Cisco took a similar path to market success with power-over-Ethernet.

"Everyone was waiting for PoE standards when Cisco rolled its own products and got a two-year advantage," Kerravala indicated. "Historically, they've built out vertically oriented solutions, then when standards are ratified they adhere to them, but they already have an installed base."

Andrew Lerner, a research director for network systems at market watcher Gartner, agreed.

"Overall, while it is a solid switching fabric that improves network agility, [the new products are] based on an architectural model that will limit long-term innovation," noted Lerner.

The approach requires "customers to buy network switches to achieve networking agility whether they need new switches or not," he said. "It is a proprietary solution that locks you in. You cannot add a non-Cisco switch into the fabric."

Cisco developed a set of undisclosed ASICs that power its new Nexus 9000 family of top-of-rack and end-of-row switches. It also created a proprietary optical module that slashes the cost of 40Gb/s interfaces.

In addition, the systems use cards linked by couplers rather than traditional passive backplanes. The approach could ease the cost of upgrading the switches by eliminating the need to buy a new chassis.

The Cisco announcement provided no details about the nature of its latest ASICs, the couplers that eliminate the need for a system backplane, or the low-cost optical modules. It also did not state whether the systems will support the OpenFlow standard, which has been the basis for many early SDN products to date.

The products include two top-of-rack switches sporting up to 96 1/10GBase-T ports and 12 40Gb QSFP+ ports along with one end-of-row switch packing eight slots in a 13RU chassis. Cisco plans to ship four- and 16-slot versions of the end-of-row switch before July.

The software includes an SDN controller that can manage up to a million end points as well as a set of application profiles for the controller. The software supports a wide variety of hypervisors from Microsoft, VMWare and others.

Cisco pioneered the spin-in start-up in 2002 with Andiamo, which built the company's first storage networking switches. In 2008 another spin-in, Nuova, created its first Fibre Channel over Ethernet switches.

Insieme "will probably have the most impact of all the spin-ins," stated Kerravala. The nearly billion-dollar maximum payout to its founders, many of them Cisco veterans, "could be pretty lucrative for all those people who were already fabulously wealthy."

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times

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