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Cisco and VMware Continue To Duke It Out in Software-Defined Networking Arena

Verbal sniping continues on eve of Cisco Live conference.

The war of words between Cisco Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. continued apace this week on the cusp of the big Cisco Live conference in San Francisco, where more sparks might fly.

The two companies are in well-documented battle for market share in the emerging arena of software-defined networking (SDN). Traditional hardware kingpin Cisco is trying to maintain its position in the networking space, where all the hype is about SDN, the new kid in town.

A key part of SDN is using virtualization and abstraction to separate the network control plane from the data -- or forwarding -- plane, where commodity switches, routers and other white-box hardware can be substituted for more complex devices that have long been the center of more monolithic, proprietary systems. Though there is some confusion about the term, basically SDN offers an upstart software-centric approach competing with the traditional hardware-centric philosophy. It's a question of where the networking intelligence resides.

Cisco isn't rejecting the new SDN movement, but is offering its own alternatives to more open approaches seeking to become industry standards, such as OpenFlow.

VMware, of course, is all about virtualization and abstraction, stating, "As part of a software-defined datacenter, VMware network virtualization decouples networking components from underlying physical network infrastructure."

They may be squabbling, but VMware is sponsoring Cisco's conference next week
[Click on image for larger view.] They may be squabbling, but VMware is sponsoring Cisco's conference next week
(source: Cisco Systems Inc.)

VMware embraced the SDN movement with the August 2012 acquisition of Nicira Inc. "Nicira is the network virtualization company and is now a key component of VMware's software-defined datacenter (SDDC) strategy," VMware stated at the time. "Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) enables the dynamic creation of virtual network infrastructure and services that are completely decoupled and independent from the physical network hardware."

In announcing the acquisition, then-VMware-CEO Paul Maritz said, "VMware has led the server virtualization revolution, and we have the opportunity to do the same in datacenter and cloud networking. The acquisition of Nicira adds to our portfolio of networking assets and positions VMware to be the industry leader in software-defined networking."

It was that very acquisition that prompted a thinly veiled potshot from Cisco CEO John Chambers during a quarterly earnings conference call earlier this week. Chambers was asked about product momentum with the Nexus 9000 switches, the key component of the company's application-centric infrastructure (ACI), an alternative SDN approach. He indicated that customer wins by VMware/Nicira will be reversed.

"Again, the receptively [sic] has been extremely strong," Chambers said of the Nexus 9000 switches, according to a transcript provided by Morningstar Inc. "Many of you come from financial institutions. So you might have seen some small start-up and VMware combined because they have been out there for five-plus years. We are taking most all of those back. Momentum feels very, very good on it. I think you'll just see us knock them off one after the other."

That exchange prompted Julie Bort to write the article, "John Chambers: Cisco Is Going To Crush VMware" on Business Insider.

VMware hasn't directly responded to the prediction its customer wins will be knocked off one by one -- or that it will be crushed by Cisco -- but on the very same day as the earnings call, a VMware exec took a veiled shot of his own, this one positioning the company's products as an alternative to Cisco's on the Vblock Systems converged infrastructure product from VCE. VCE was formed as a joint venture between Cisco and EMC, and actually included an investment from VMware.

Despite VMware's participation in the project, VCE favored Cisco's ACI over the competing NSX technology, as Greg Ferro noted in his article, "VCE Chooses Cisco ACI as SDN Strategy Instead of VMware NSX."

On Wednesday, the same day as the Cisco earnings call, VMware's Hatem Naguib wrote a blog post titled "VMware NSX Runs Great on VCE Vblock Systems."

"VMware NSX is an ideal platform for virtualizing the network running on top of converged infrastructure such as Vblock Systems in the SDDC," Naguib said. "In fact, we've found that NSX runs absolutely great on Vblock Systems. Customers today are already running NSX with Vblock Systems, and we are seeing customer interest from VCE customers continue to accelerate."

This week's sniping was a continuation of a long-running discourse between the two companies.

For example, in January, Cisco's Gary Kinghorn wrote a "Rebuttal to VMware Comments on ACI and SDN Architectures." Kinghorn recounted a Cisco executive's reply to a VMware executive's comparison of NSX to ACI and other SDN architectures. The rebuttal outlined arguments about pricing, proprietary vendor lock-in, openness and more.

And plenty of other articles have documented the ongoing friction between the two competitors and sometimes partners (more than one article referred to them as "frenemies").

One might expect more such headlines to follow once Cisco Live gets underway Sunday.

Or not.

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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