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Cisco Finally Takes The Cover Off Insieme

It seems like years that we've been talking about the latest Cisco "spin in", Insieme, and what the company was building. Well, on Wednesday, at a media event in New York, Cisco announced it was buying the remaining portion of Insieme and unveiled its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) vision.

The vision of ACI is certainly a bold one, as it portrays a world where the entire data center can be managed from a single point, which is the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). In addition to the APIC, Cisco also rolled out new Nexus 9300 and 9500 switches, an optimized operating system and some other supporting hardware, such as custom optics to drive the price per connection down.

The last piece of the ACI puzzle is something called application network profiles, which can be thought of as the expansion of existing UCS service profiles. Today service profiles are used to automatically configure UCS related infrastructure such as NICs, HBAs (host bus adapters), servers and network devices. Now take this concept and expand it to storage, layer 4-7 services, hypervisors, security functions and other infrastructure in the data center.

In interviews I've done with UCS customers, they rave about how easy service profiles make it to deploy applications on UCS. The application network profiles should have a similar impact on ACI.

From a vision perspective, the way ACI should work is that the applications dictate how the underlying infrastructure is deployed and managed. Let's take the example of telepresence.

When a telepresence session is initiated, the application should be able to "talk" to the APIC and have a virtual network created with enough bandwidth to handle the call. If the video requires security, because it's a confidential meeting, then the APIC can direct the security infrastructure to apply the correct policies. Perhaps a virtual load balancer needs to be added to the infrastructure--then that can get added too. Once this has been done once, a "profile" can be created and then invoked each time a telepresence session is initiated, allowing for true "point and click" provisioning.

Unlike the other SDN vendors, the primary problem Cisco is trying to solve has nothing to do with commoditizing the network. During the CTO panel at the event, there was a discussion of how commodity hardware actually leads to higher operational costs since the IT department has to cobble things together themselves. On paper, buying cheaper hardware makes some sense, but in practice, the overhead in using cheap stuff far outweighs any benefit one might get from saving a few nickels on network hardware.

Cisco's ACI architecture is aimed at the big problem in data centers, which is that the costs of provisioning and management tasks associated with application delivery are way too high and getting higher. ZK Research studies have calculated that more than 80% of an organization's budget is used to maintain the status quo. That leaves very little budget for new projects. In lieu of a massive budget increase, most companies need to find a way of lowering the cost of running the current environment, and the data center is a great place to start.

About 40% of the cost of running the data center is people-related costs, much of that associated with the time taken to provision resources. In addition to the cost, there's often a huge lag between when the server person does something and then hands it off to, say, the network manager. This is why you often hear of provisioning times in enterprises for new applications, or even changes to existing ones, being weeks or even months. What if this could happen in hours or minutes or be fully automated? What would that be worth? Well, from customers I've talked to, this can knock the people costs in half, a much bigger benefit than using commodity hardware.

One difference with this announcement versus many others from Cisco was the size of the third-party ecosystem. Cisco's ACI partners represent a smorgasbord of data center vendors including many market leaders such as Citrix, F5, EMC, Network Appliance, Symantec and a number of others. Talking to many of them after the main stage presentations, one got the sense of just how excited the ecosystem of partners is. They say a rising tide lifts all boats, and if Cisco's ACI does as advertised, it promises a nice upgrade cycle for Cisco and for many of these partners.

The big winner, though, is the customer. Virtualization, SDNs, cloud and mobility have made networks increasingly more agile but also increasingly more complex. Cisco's ACI allows customers to enjoy the benefits while simplifying the management of the infrastructure.

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