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Cisco network disaggregation for carriers, enterprises

Cisco has embraced network disaggregation for data centers and carriers. The company is providing the option of running its network operating systems on third-party switches.

Cisco is giving enterprises the option of running its Nexus operating system on third-party switches while providing the same flexibility to telcos using its carrier-grade OS. The latest product changes are in line with the growing demand -- particularly among service providers and large financial institutions -- for decoupled networking hardware and software.

Cisco also introduced this week more options for hosting third-party applications on Catalyst 9000 switches and ISR and ASR routers. The new features in the campus hardware require the latest iteration of Cisco's IOS XE operating system, version 16.8.1.

Cisco's Nexus announcement means customers can run the network operating system (NOS) of their choice on Nexus data center switches or run the Nexus OS (NX-OS) on third-party hardware. Microsoft, for example, is running the Sonic operating system on Nexus 9200 and 9300 switches within the company's Azure public cloud, according to Cisco. Microsoft developed Sonic and contributed it to the Open Compute Project, a Facebook-founded group designing open source hardware.

"Cisco recognizes that it must disaggregate to accommodate this shift in market demand," said Brad Casemore, an analyst at IDC. "Competition increasingly will occur on the merits of disaggregated network software."

The changes center on the use of the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) supported in the Nexus hardware. SAI separates the NOS from the underlying chipset, which means the former can run on merchant silicon from multiple vendors. The OCP manages SAI development.

Cisco network disaggregation for carriers

Cisco's embrace of network disaggregation has led to giving carriers the option of running the IOS XR operating system on a Cisco switch or a white box model powered by merchant silicon. Also, Cisco is providing a virtualized version of IOS XR that carriers can run on x86 servers.

Carriers have incorporated network disaggregation in rearchitecting their IT infrastructure to deliver as early as this year wireless services over new fifth-generation broadband technology, called 5G. Carrier remodeling plans call for managing services and network traffic in centralized software divorced from hardware.

Cisco, a proprietary hardware provider shifting its business to software, has struggled to sell gear to carriers. In its latest quarterly earnings, product orders in its service provider customer category were down 5% from the previous year.

Andre Kindness, an analyst at Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., said the flexibility Cisco has added to its operating systems show the company is giving in to carriers and enterprises demanding disaggregated software.

"The market has pressured Cisco into this -- no doubt about it," Kindness said.

Changes to Catalyst, ISR, ASR hardware

Options added to the Catalyst 9000 switches and ISR and ASR routers include the ability to run third-party applications within a Linux container or a KVM virtual machine. Underneath the software is the IOS XE, a Linux-based campus OS.

For the IOS XE, the networking supplier introduced Cisco Validated Design (CVD) Configuration Management Templates, which automate the deployment of the vendor's reference designs. The first template is an Ansible playbook for campus LAN Layer 2 access. The release is available for download through Cisco's DevNet GitHub repository.

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