Cisco edges towards pure software play

By now most people in the industry accept that networks will evolve to become more software-centric.
Work on software-defined networking (SDN), network virtualization, and network functions virtualization (NFV) has led some to believe that software will develop to the point where it will render today’s switches and routers, and the companies that make them, obsolete – replaced by high-performance software running on virtual machines and generic, white-box hardware platforms.
At its 24th annual Cisco Live event, held June 23–27 in Orlando, Cisco laid claims of its early demise to rest. Rather than leave the future of networking to software start-ups and white-box products, Cisco is ready to lead the charge forward with what it calls Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI). With ACI Cisco will deliver an architectural solution where software, silicon, and services are designed as a system to bring optimum performance to applications.
Cisco is building a software business
Last year, at Cisco Live 2012, CEO John Chambers said Cisco would become a software company. At the time this sounded more like a wish than a plan as the company ethos was still firmly entrenched in hardware.
At Cisco Live 2013, Chambers went even further, saying he wants the company to move from being a leading networking company to become a leading IT company, and in the process become one of the world’s largest software providers. But this year his plan doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
Though there is a long road ahead to break out of the product silo model and move to software and services, this year I got the impression that the company and its employees are moving in this direction.
Cisco has a vision of the network as a scalable service, and Cisco’s ambition is to deliver an architectural solution that supports collaboration between software developers and IT operations professionals to more rapidly introduce software products and services in support of business needs.
But hardware isn’t going away
Cisco’s initial support for SDN includes enhancements to its current product line to incorporate OpenFlow agents and Northbound APIs to support network programmability. However, rather than a commoditization of switches and routers, Cisco sees these network elements evolving to play an increasingly important role as software makes networks more intelligent and networks continue to scale.
Cisco envisions networks operating in an automated fashion, using a feedback loop in which network elements play a key role in collecting information from the network and presenting it to analytics engines.
Applications then take the network intelligence created by the analytics engines, combined with policy information, and feed this back to the network in near-realtime to optimize performance. Close coupling of the network and analytics engines, along with programmable control of the network elements, is important to provide acceptable performance, especially as networks scale.
Setting the stage for introduction of Insieme products later this year
Cisco readily admits it was late to the table when it announced its Open Network Environment (ONE) SDN strategy in June 2012. Cisco ONE focuses on network programmability and network virtual overlays and includes a Cisco-developed SDN controller announced in February 2013.
OnePK, a component of Cisco ONE, provides a toolkit and APIs that virtualize network resources and expose the features and capabilities of Cisco products to provide a programmable network environment. As OnePK is incorporated into Cisco’s product line, Cisco ONE will bring new SDN-enabled functionality and capabilities to run on top of Cisco infrastructure.
But Cisco ONE is just the start of the company’s plans to lead the evolution of networking. Cisco is moving from virtualized programmable networks to automated application-centric networks. The company is beginning to discuss an open platform for managing physical, virtual, and cloud networks with a network architecture that it says is a step beyond the current definition of SDN.
This Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI), being developed by Cisco’s spin-in Insieme, promises a system approach to networks with applications and networks working together through a common framework.
It all comes down to execution over time
Other infrastructure vendors including Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Huawei see the writing on the wall and are taking their own steps to take advantage of this software-based networking evolution and develop into software suppliers. Which vendors succeed will come down to execution.
Becoming a software vendor will require building an effective application developer community, new approaches to sales and marketing, new pricing models, and a shift in organizational structure and market channels. This will take time, but the change to software-based networks will not happen overnight, so Cisco and other vendors have time to make it work.
David Krozier is a principal analyst for network infrastructure at Ovum. For more information, visit