Cisco ACI in the Real World

Thursday Mar 5th 2015 by Teren Bryson

Cisco's ACI is blazing a trail for SDN in the enterprise. Find out who's deploying ACI and why.

"Dealing with complexity is an inefficient and unnecessary waste of time, attention, and mental energy. There is never any justification for things being complex when they could be simple."

-Edward de Bono

Networks have historically been incredibly complex beasts made from the intertwined connections of hundreds or thousands of discrete and independently operating devices. Each and every part of a network has required touching, massaging, and configuration on the order of hundreds of lines of code. Whether the devices are called bridges, routers, firewalls, or something else, the task of getting them ready for service has always taken a significant amount of time and skill.

This model may soon be going the way of the dodo.

The storage, compute, and operational aspects of large integrated systems once labored under the same levels of complexity as enterprise networks. Over the last 10 years or so, however, that complexity has largely been driven out of those other arenas. In comparison, networks have lagged behind, and in some cases even regressed.

SDN and the rise of Cisco's ACI

Software defined networking (SDN) is turning the formerly glacial pace of change in the network into a downright torrent. Every company with any technological bona fides has some sort of SDN-labeled product in the works or already available. Startups have sprung from nothing, and old giants are moving aggressively into the field.

Cisco is one such giant. Through the Insieme incubator, led by the same key players responsible for the MDS 9000 series SAN switches and the Nexus product line, the vendor has released a product suite called Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). ACI is designed with the same larger goal as any of its rivals, namely the reduction of complexity in the network and datacenter, but goes about it in a different manner than most and, resultingly, has garnered both criticism and praise.

I'm not going to rehash the basics or the technology of Cisco's ACI SDN solution. Those who are interested in gaining a basic understanding and possibly level setting should check out this great series of videos presented by Joe Onisick, Principal Engineer at Cisco Systems, to the Network Field Day 8 delegates in San Jose. Mr. Onisick effectively describes not only the problems that ACI was built to overcome but the technology at a deep level as well. That's the engineering side. Today, let's talk about market penetration. Who is adopting this new breed of network, and why?

Who's using ACI?

As with any new technology in a hotly contested market, one of the inevitable questions that arises is, Just who is using it? With market leaders, newcomers, punditocracy, and even the proletariat throwing facts, figures, and FUD on the SDN landscape, it can be hard to sort out fact from fiction. Let's face it: Most companies don't want to back the losing horse, especially with emerging technology. Instead, they tend to take a wait-and-see approach. To find out where and why ACI is being deployed today, I dug into some of the facts and figures.

In a conversation with Harry Petty, Director of Market Management, DC Networking at Cisco, I learned that the Nexus 9k, the switch at the core of the ACI ecosystem, represents "a triple digit ramp for the business" and "one of the fastest ramps of any product category in Cisco's history." The numbers themselves are fairly staggering, with December's numbers showing 1000 9K customers and 200 ACI adopters. Move into January and that number climbs to over 1700 9K customers with 300 ACI adopters. 9K sales are outpacing full-blown ACI adoption. Considering the versatility and price point of the switch on its own merits, I expect that to continue to be the case regardless of ACI adoption rate.

Critics will point out, of course, that the numbers for ACI adoption largely represent development environments, not full production deployments. That may be true, but the same can be said for all SDN deployments. They are not complex to operate. In fact, they simplify day-to-day operations. SDN deployment represents a paradigm shift for IT departments, however, and so organizations require a longer cycle to gain familiarity and comfort with ACI in an operational mode.

Petty and Cisco are aware of this and are largely handling these first deployments with internal resources. In fact, Petty points out that "all of these early projects are being done with Cisco's Advanced Services organization." In explaining the reasoning behind this, he commented that "as you can imagine, this involves people processes as well," lending credence to the challenges inherent in changing the old model of IT.

ACI customers speak

Moving large enterprise IT organizations from the traditional model to a policy-driven approach like ACI does not come without significant challenges, so why do it? An early adopter of ACI, Symantec CIO Sheila Jordan says, "we think speed and agility are critical," and goes on to cite "personalization and customized performance, improved security, efficiencies and cost savings, and high availability" as key factors in her decision. Trevor Moore, CIO of Qatar University and another early ACI adopter, said that the university and Qatar itself have "a very aggressive agenda for a knowledge based economy… so we have to provide the infrastructure for that."

When you listen to these and other leaders, you get a real sense that driving down the complexity of IT, reducing TCO across both CAPEX and OPEX, improving scalability and shortening time to market are the driving factors behind ACI deployment. Nobody is doing this just because it's the new tech, or because it's Cisco, or for some other vague reason.

NetApp's EVP of Product Operations, George Kurian, runs one of the world's largest cloud-enabled datacenters using ACI. NetApp's datacenters have over 5000 engineers; their RTP datacenter alone has "more than 50k virtual machines deployed, scalable to 150k during peak regression testing" on the 9k and ACI architecture. When explaining why the ACI architecture is so important to him and his company, he said, "From a business results perspective, what we measure these capabilities against is the time to new product." His ability to deliver value to NetApp's lines of business is accelerated by what he calls the three key cornerstone benefits of ACI: Rapid application provisioning, physical and virtual integration, and an operations model that maps to the shared services organization.

Integration of the physical and virtual sides of the data center is key to just about anyone deploying ACI today. Many SDN models look almost entirely at the virtual machine world and almost entirely ignore bare metal machines or the legacy infrastructure on the network. One of the biggest benefits cited by many ACI adopters is the ability to integrate physical machines, virtual machines, datacenters, and existing enterprise infrastructure into a holistic solution, and to do so at a highly competitive price point. Ben Cooper, Network Architect for Experian, a leading SaaS and Big Data Analytics provider with over 16,000 employees across 450 countries, said that the company's environment is only "65 percent virtualized."

With technologies like Docker, and bare metal workloads that don't perform well in virtualized environments, the idea that we'll ever get to a 100 percent virtualized datacenter is all but dead. Any solution that ignores non-virtualized workloads is likely going to have a higher barrier to adoption than one that addresses all facets of the network.

In looking at all of this, the picture that emerges is of a market in transition, moving at an ever-increasing pace towards SDN adoption in general. ACI specifically is seeing a rapid uptick in adoption. Considering that the 9K line of switches was released in November of 2013 and the APIC in July of 2014, the client base Cisco has attracted is particularly impressive. With 35 network partners ranging from F5 and Citrix to Puppet Labs, Microsoft, EMC, and SAP, favorable market response to Cisco's new direction is becoming clear. So many partners, spending so much time, money, and effort to integrate with ACI, give the product a lot of weight and will only serve to further increase the adoption rate through 2015 and beyond.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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