Dan's Take

Cisco Moves Heavy Into SDN With Digital Network Architecture

The latest announcement shows how the hardware giant is becoming a software-first company.

I recently spoke with Cisco's Prashanth Shenoy, Director of Enterprise Networks, who leads Cisco's Enterprise Mobility, Unified Access and Connected Mobile Experiences solutions marketing.

Cisco, having realized that enterprises need to work with an architecture when designing and implementing network-based workloads, is launching its own Cisco Digital Network Architecture (C-DNA). The company has developed such an architecture and would be absolutely delighted if the industry would adopt its solution.

Five Guiding Principles
Cisco has developed an architecture and is planning to reform its product development strategy to conform with the principles of C-DNA. Here's how the company describes it:

Cisco DNA is built on five guiding principles:

  • Virtualize everything to give organizations freedom of choice to run any service anywhere, independent of the underlying platform – physical or virtual, on premise or in the cloud.
  • Designed for automation to make networks and services on those networks easy to deploy, manage and maintain – fundamentally changing the approach to network management.
  • Pervasive analytics to provide insights on the operation of the network, IT infrastructure and the business – information that only the network can provide.
  • Service management delivered from the cloud to unify policy and orchestration across the network – enabling the agility of cloud with the security and control of on premises solutions.
  • Open, extensible and programmable at every layer – Integrating Cisco and 3rd party technology, open API's and a developer platform, to support a rich ecosystem of network-enabled applications.

During the announcement, Cisco launched DNA-Virtualization, Cisco Intelligent WAN Automation Services, DNA Virtualization and DNA Cloud Service Management. Let's briefly examine each of these.

APIC-Enterprise Module (APIC EM)
Cisco's APIC-EM Platform is a new version of Cisco's enterprise controller. The company claims 100-plus customer deployments, including one in which APIC-EM is running about 4,000 devices from a single instance. This, the company claims, demonstrates APIC-EM's enterprise scalability and offers the resiliency required for the company's largest customers.

The APIC-EM platform supports a range of automation services, including:

  • Cisco Plug and Play. Cisco says that this automation software removes the need for any staging for pre-configuration or truck rollouts to remote locations. The Plug and Play agent sits on Cisco routers and switches and talks directly to the network controller, reducing deployment time from up to four weeks to a few days, and providing up to 79 percent decrease in Day 0 deployment costs over traditional methods.
  • Easy Quality of Service (EasyQoS). The EasyQoS service enables the network to dynamically update network-wide QoS settings based on application policy. With EasyQoS IT departments can ensure that the right application is prioritized to provide the best experience for users.
Cisco Intelligent WAN (IWAN) Automation Services
This service automates IWAN deployment and management. Cisco says these services will provide greater WAN deployment flexibility and allow IT administrators to quickly configure and deploy a full-service branch office with just 10 clicks. IWAN automation, Cisco claims, eliminates configuration tasks for advanced networking features, and automatically enables Cisco best practices, application prioritization, path selection and caching to improve the user experience.

DNA Virtualization: Evolved IOS-XE and Enterprise NFV
Cisco touts a new version of its operating system, "Evolved Cisco IOS XE." It's a network operating system optimized for programmability, controller-based automation and serviceability. The new OS provides open APIs for third-party application development, software-defined management, application hosting, edge computing and abstraction from the physical infrastructure to enable virtualization. It supports the Cisco Catalyst 3850/3650, ASR 1000 and ISR 4000 today, and will continue to be expanded across the enterprise network portfolio.

Cisco explained that "Evolved Cisco IOS XE" includes Enterprise Network Function Virtualization (Enterprise NFV) that decouples hardware from software and gives enterprises the freedom of choice to run any feature anywhere.

Cisco pointed out that its solution includes the full software stack -- virtualization infrastructure software; virtualized network functions (VNFs) like routing, firewall, WAN Optimization, and WLAN controller; and orchestration services -- to enable branch office service virtualization. The idea is for IT to simplify day-to-day operations, roll out new branch services with no truck rolls, and have flexible deployment options, including a customized Cisco platform, a server platform, or any x86 platform.

DNA Cloud Service Management: CMX Cloud
Cisco says that CMX Cloud provides business insights and personalized engagement using location and presence information from Cisco wireless infrastructure. The company claims that CMX Cloud enables enterprises to provide easy Wi-Fi onboarding, gain access to aggregate customer behavior data and improve customer engagement.

What was so interesting about the call was that it sounded very much like Cisco had taken elements of presentations I developed years ago while serving as a member of Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) Network and Communications Group (NAC). If I rummaged around a bit in my files, I'm sure I could find the 35mm slide deck with many of the same concepts. NAC created DEC's Digital Network Architecture (DNA), its networking software, its networking products and worked closely with the groups responsible for systems, operating systems, networking and storage devices. This technology predated today's TCP/IP and was made available under the name DECnet.

A Better Mousetrap
DEC almost always designed a comprehensive, exhaustive architecture before writing a single line of code or sketching out a development plan for hardware. The goals were to always future-proof the customer's environment; make the environment reliable; provide performance as strong as reasonably possible; make it manageable; and make it secure. The old joke was that DEC would never just "build a better mousetrap." No, the company would first closely examine the mouse. It would then design a Digital standard mouse architecture and build better mice that would be better than mice that were available on the market at that time. Only then would the company design a better mousetrap. The mousetrap would catch both the new mice and the older mice (for backward compatibility). This procedure was often tedious and slow, but the products it produced were very good.

The issue was that DEC saw DECnet as one of its "crown jewels," and was reluctant to make it available on any other platform. I remember the debate in meetings concerning offering DECnet on DEC's own UNIX platform, Ultrix. Finally, everyone agreed that it would be in customers' best interest if it was made available.

Dan's Take: Cisco as Network Czar?
Cisco appears to be trying to avoid the problems DECnet had; it's designed to help other suppliers provide products and services that fit within the architecture, and Cisco's DNA appears to put customer requirements first and the academic interests of architects second.

The real test is coming up, however. Will other vendors and enterprises who are not already Cisco customers adopt this approach and effectively put Cisco in the position of being network czar? We'll have to wait and see.

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company.

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