BY CAROLINE GABRIEL
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As outgoing CEO John Chambers hosted his last Cisco Live annual conference, it was fitting that the centrepiece of the event was virtualization. The somewhat abrupt timing of Chambers' retirement indicated that he felt the giant IP company was at an important turning point, which made it the right time for a change of leadership.
The move, by carriers and enterprises, from physical to virtual networks and towards software-defined networking (SDN) will define the next few years in Cisco's core business and decide whether it remains in the dominant position which Chambers, despite recent turmoils, carved out for it.
As part of a broad set of SDN announcements, Cisco executives spent some time focused on operators, saying that their progress towards virtualization was more rapid than many had expected. It was anticipated that carriers would largely confine their first-wave efforts to relatively discrete platforms like the packet core, but in fact, according to Kelly Ahuja, Cisco's SVP for the service provider business, they are actually trialling virtual network functions, as well as SDN, across a wide range of elements, including firewalls, load balancers and VoLTE infrastructure.
"Most operators are telling us - look, my network is a chaos, an IT construct is a chaos. Virtualized chaos is still chaos, so what you got to do is show me what value these things can add for me," Ahuja said.
In that context, Cisco is focusing on one of the areas with the greatest potential to turn virtualization into gold for operators - virtual managed services, which provide the ability to support large numbers of third party offerings, from flexible MVNOs to corporate customers' services. "Business customers are where we're starting to see most relevant application and deployment of that," Ahuja said, according to SeekingAlpha.
Building platforms to support large numbers of customers' and MVNOs' offerings is a key commercial goal of AT&T's Domain 2.0 SDN program. Cisco is working with the US carrier, and with rival Verizon, on their SDN projects, which are among the most advanced in the telco world. This will cheer investors, who have been concerned at signs that Cisco might start to be squeezed out of its central position in the infrastructure of AT&T and other major customers.
The first wave of Domain 2.0 vendors announced by AT&T indicated the disruptive effect SDN could have on its supplier roster, and included Metaswitch, Tail-f and Affirmed Systems, and excluded Cisco, (though Cisco subsequently hit back by acquiring Tail-f). Verizon, which recently announced its own SDN program, has stuck with traditional partners in phase one and will add specialists and start-ups later - its key vendors are Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, Ericsson and Juniper. These large companies will create the framework architecture and the interface specifications, and Verizon's first targets are the relatively low hanging fruit of SDN - the data center, packet core and IMS.
To help bolster its position in the carriers' SDN roadmaps, Cisco is steadily adding to its platform, and says it now supports 15 virtual network functions for telcos. In a long list of announcements at Cisco Live, the most carrier-focused were additions to the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) EVPN. This is targeted at service providers and it has now gained a Virtual Topology System (VTS). For operators requiring a programmable fabric, VTS adds the ability to provision and manage a VXLAN, based on BGP EVPN, as a software overlay across Cisco Nexus switches. (VXLAN is a proposed protocol for running a virtual network on existing Layer 3 infrastructure, and an important tool for allowing operators and enterprises to migrate gradually to SDN, without sacrificing hardware investments.) VTS will support any virtual switch that supports the BGP protocol.
Cisco first introduced BGP EVPN on the Nexus 9000 switch early this year but it is now being extended to the Nexus 5600 and 7000 families, and to the modular Nexus 9500. However, the Nexus 1000v does not yet support BGP.
While programmable fabric will be important to large carrier SDN programs, some smaller ones may use the more pre-packaged Cisco offering, Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), which is mainly targeted at enterprise customers and the SDN 'mass market'. New extensions to the fabric software include extensions to support integration with Microsoft Azure; plus a plug-in for VMware vCenter plug-in; an ACI toolkit for simplified network provisioning; and a 'stretched' fabric that can extend from 30km to 150km over DWDM, pseudowires and dark fiber for multi-site data centers.
Cisco also announced two Nexus 3000 Series switches based on merchant silicon. The Nexus 3232C is a 32-port 100G switch based on Broadcom's Tomahawk chipset, while the Nexus 3264Q is a 64-port 40G variant. Both will ship in the third quarter with prices starting at $35,000. They indicate another disruptive aspect of SDN - the shift towards hardware which is more commoditized in design, openness and, of course, price. That in turn will drive vendors like Cisco, which have relied heavily on ASICs designed inhouse, towards the economics of merchant silicon, boosting providers like Broadcom.