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Cisco NFV platform could become a 'game changer' for customers

The new Cisco NFV software stack will eventually run on any Intel-based x86 server.

Cisco has launched a major initiative to provide companies with the option of virtualizing network services instead of leaving them tied to the vendor's less flexible hardware.

The company introduced Enterprise Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) this week at the Cisco Partner Summit in San Diego. The Cisco NFV announcement is part of what the company calls its Digital Network Architecture (DNA), the latest brand for old and new products related to the vendor's push to get customers to digitize more of their business operations.

DNA-related announcements also included an upgrade of Cisco's Application Policy Infrastructure Controller Enterprise Module (APIC-EM) for branch network automation. Companies use APIC-EM to configure routers, and to define, distribute and enforce policies related to security and quality of service.

Other Summit announcements included the $260 million acquisition of cloud management vendor CliQr Technologies Inc., based in San Jose, Calif. CliQr software lets companies deploy workloads without modification within and between public, private and hybrid clouds. Cisco had already integrated CliQr's tools into some of its data center technology.

Cisco's plans for network virtualization

Enterprise NFV marks a significant shift away from the hardware-based branch platform Cisco provides on its Integrated Services Routers (ISRs). The Cisco NFV software stack could become a "game changer," if the company raises the scalability of its branch networking software, said Will Murrell, senior network engineer for UNICOM Systems Inc., which designs and develops software for Global 2000 companies, and is based in Mission Hills, Calif.

Cisco said it did that in APIC-EM 1.1, introduced at the Summit. "APIC-EM 1.0 had issues with some of its capabilities and wasn't a very good platform," Murrell said.

The latest version can manage more than 4,000 network devices, according to Cisco. If true, then APIC-EM 1.1 is "definitely scalable," said Shamus McGillicuddy, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., based in Boulder, Colo. APIC-EM manages Cisco's Intelligent WAN (IWAN) architecture, a set of performance-enhancing features on the company's branch routers. A better APIC-EM means a stronger IWAN.

"Companies were turning away from IWAN as a solution, because the system didn't scale well," Murrell said.

Besides managing IWAN, APIC-EM will orchestrate the virtual network functions (VNFs) running on the Cisco NFV platform. The VNFs Cisco is providing -- virtual routers, firewalls, WAN optimization and wireless LAN controllers -- are not new. But as part of the NFV product, they should be "easier to deploy and manage," McGillicuddy said.

Enterprise NFV includes KVM hypervisor-based software for hosting VNFs on x86 infrastructure. The software, called the NFV Infrastructure Layer, will assist in service chaining and come with open APIs for deploying third-party VNFs.

Initially, companies can use Enterprise NFV on a Unified Computing System (UCS) E-Series server module that plugs into an ISR 4000 router. Network operators can also implement the Cisco NFV software stack on a UCS C-Series server.

"Sites using IWAN are already going to have ISR 4000s on-site, so when you add a UCS-E blade to the thing, it changes the ballgame," Murrell said. "Being able to quickly deploy those services is going to be a boon to the branch office."

Ultimately, Cisco wants to certify this software to run on any [Intel-based] x86 server.
Shamus McGillicuddyanalyst at Enterprise Management Associates

Cisco's goal for Enterprise NFV goes beyond its hardware. "Ultimately, Cisco wants to certify this software to run on any [Intel-based] x86 server," McGillicuddy said.

Doing so will likely take some development work using the tools Intel provides for building white box switches powered by its chips, he said. But if Cisco does that, Enterprise NFV will be "truly open and independent of hardware."

"Cisco doesn't do that very often," McGillicuddy said.

The Cisco NFV platform, APIC-EM and the rest of the company's software-defined networking (SDN) technology competes with products from Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Huawei, Juniper Networks and VMware.

 CliQr and new Nexus hardware

The CliQr acquisition gives Cisco control over the technology that it has already integrated into UCS and its data center-focused SDN framework, called Application Centric Infrastructure.

Cisco plans to incorporate CliQr technology across its data center portfolio to help companies manage workloads in cloud environments. Cisco intends to fold the CliQr team into the server access and virtualization group led by Senior Vice President Prem Jain. The transaction is scheduled to close by the end of April.

Also at the Summit, Cisco introduced HyperFlex, a line of hyper-converged systems that integrates the company's UCS server with the HX Data Platform, which provides software-defined storage. HyperFlex combines solid-state drives and spinning disks into a single object-based data store, according to Cisco.

Cisco built the system using x86 infrastructure software developed by partner Springpath Inc. The system will compete against EMC's VCE, Oracle's engineered systems, IBM's PureSystem and HPE's ConvergedSystem.

Finally, Cisco introduced the Nexus 9200 series and 9300EX switches, which deliver speeds of 25/50/100 Gbps. The list price is $20,000 and $22,500, respectively. Other hardware announcements included a 25/50/100 Gbps Nexus 3000, and an infrastructure upgrade for the Nexus 9500 series that lifts the switch's speed to 100 Gbps within its existing chassis.

In 2015, Cisco accounted for 56% of the worldwide switching and router market, according to Synergy Research Group. Cisco's dominance is in the enterprise market, while rivals Juniper, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and others collectively account for almost 60% of the service provider market.

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