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Cisco launches ACI, a software analog to UCS in data centers

Cisco's efforts to converge data center infrastructure worked out well and now it's trying to do something similar with applications as it delivers its answer to software defined networking.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Cisco on Wednesday launched a new architecture dubbed Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in an effort to combine hardware and software to trump software defined networking. The company also acquired the 15 percent of Insieme Networks it doesn't already own with a maximum price of $863 million if sales conditions are met.

The networking giant's moves are designed to meld management of data centers and cloud infrastructure so they can be more responsive to application development. ACI also serves as Cisco's most definitive answer to software defined networking. In many ways, ACI appears to be the software half of what Cisco did with its Unified Computing System hardware efforts to consolidate data center infrastructure.

VMware popularized the notion that network resources would be virtualized much like the server market. Following VMware's acquisition of Nicira last year mergers and acquisitions in software defined networking accelerated. Cisco, however, argues that software defined networking can be costly, doesn't scale and creates management issues. Here's a look at Cisco's case:

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Cisco is also making a total cost of ownership case for ACI fueled infrastructure.

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"The properties of SDN will be integrated with infrastructure so customers can focus on applications instead of weaving together networks," said Frank D’Agostino, senior director at Insieme, now part of Cisco.

Cisco's roadmap for ACI carries it into 2014 with a series of hardware and software updates.

The company has certainly lined up a broad ecosystem around ACI and has most of the big name enterprise vendors---VMware, NetApp, EMC, Citrix, BMC, Red Hat, Microsoft, IBM and SAP---on board. Cisco's primary pitch is that ACI unifies compute, networking, storage, applications and security into one entity and is open enough to count rivals as partners. 

One networking player not in the Cisco API camp: HP. In a statement, HP CTO Dave Larson said that Cisco ACI is designed to lock its customers into its architecture and revolves around a "hardware-defined alternative."

According to Cisco ACI can deliver up to 75 total cost of ownership savings compared to hardware switches and software defined networking. Cisco to touting faster application deployment time, centralized policy management and open protocols, APIs and standards.

In a nutshell, ACI consists of three parts that all play to Cisco's core products. The components include:

  • Cisco's Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC); 
  • The company's Nexus 9000 switch portfolio, which will have a starting price tag of $75,000 in most cases; 
  • And an enhanced version of Cisco's NX-OS operating system.
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Not surprisingly, Cisco's Nexus 9000 is the building block for the ACI effort. Cisco plans to offer an upgrade to NX-OS to create and ACI-mode. Cisco's plan is to use its ACI building blocks and infrastructure as an integrated data center system that can scale and meld virtual and physical infrastructure via open APIs and extensions to OpenStack. In addition, ACI will automate virtual network policies via Microsoft's Hyper-V, Red Hat KVM and VMware vSphere among others.

D’Agostino said that ACI will be open and its APIs will be published without a software development kit.

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As for customer references, Cisco noted Alibaba Group, Cerner and Chrysler are among the enterprises investigating or preparing to test ACI.

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