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Cisco to open SDN framework to nonpartner products

Cisco is preparing to open up ACI, the company's SDN framework, to nonpartner products that provide Layer 4-7 network services.

Cisco plans to make the next version of its software-defined networking (SDN) platform more flexible by letting companies add load balancers, firewalls and other Layer 4-7 (L4-7) services from non-Cisco partners.

The upcoming Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) upgrade, code-named Brazos, will provide what Cisco calls an "unmanaged mode" for integrating third-party services into the SDN framework. Data center operators can use the mode to build service chains between application tiers, a process Cisco calls "network stitching." Cisco declined to say when it would ship the ACI upgrade.

Today, ACI has a single "managed mode" that can chain services only from vendors with products certified for the ACI API. The API lets ACI customers use Cisco's Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) to configure and manage L4-7 services.

The unmanaged mode will let non-certified products be a part of ACI, but services not connected to APIC will have to be managed separately

Nevertheless, having only a managed mode wasn't enough for many Cisco customers. "While there are benefits of full automation, including configuration of L4-7 devices, some customers have requested to provide unmanaged mode for their custom devices or as a migration path to full automation," Praveen Jain, vice president of engineering at Cisco, based in San Jose, Calif., said in a blog post.

SDN immaturity

The need to create a two-tier SDN framework reflects the immaturity of SDN products, which companies hope will one day let them automate adjustments to all network services when an application is moved, upgraded, added or removed. Today, most companies struggle with the difficult task of making changes in network services using the command line interface (CLI) provided by hardware vendors.

Companies selling L4-7 appliances are adapting their products to SDN, but "the networking industry is still figuring out how all this stuff is going to work together," said Shamus McGillicuddy, analyst at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., based in Boulder, Colo.

"Management of L4-7 services is going to be extremely complex, especially as these appliances get more and more virtualized," he said.

Cisco's SDN framework is evolving into a control hub for a variety of devices and software either served by the network or part of its infrastructure, said Dan Conde, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., based in Milford, Mass. ACI currently connects to virtualization software from VMware and Linux vendors, bare-metal switches, Microsoft Windows servers and Docker containers.

"By enabling a new unmanaged mode, they have finally made a complete solution where you can tie in various environments into an ACI system," Conde said. "Now, if you go unmanaged, you lose some visibility -- but that's a tradeoff."

VMware is Cisco's largest SDN competitor in the enterprise market. Both vendors are using their strong presence in corporate networks as a springboard for their SDN technology.

VMware is hoping to capitalize on the market strength of its data center virtualization platform to sell NSX, an all-software approach to network programmability. Cisco's ACI is a hardware-centric approach leveraging what market researchers say is a majority share of the switching market.

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