Cisco ACI and VMware NSX: Will Those Two Kids Ever Get Along?

M. Fratto

M. Fratto

• Cisco and VMware partner on many integration projects, but the lack of integration between Cisco ACI and VMware NSX has gone on too long.
• Bread crumbs of hints that collaboration between the two SDN units of each company may be a portent or wishful thinking.

Some might see CRN’s article Cisco CEO: We’re Talking With VMware About Closer Software-Defined Networking Relationship” where Cisco’s CEO, Chuck Robbins told the author “…I think our teams are talking about where there might be points that balance the competitive nature of the [Cisco – VMware] partnership, but also meet perhaps some of the emerging customer asks. So I think it that’s to be determined” as a positive assertion that the two companies are going to integrate the ACI and NSX. At last year’s VMworld in San Francisco, executives at VMware made a similar, albeit cryptic, statement as well. That these little bread crumbs are dropping may be a precursor to an announcement as early as this summer, but frankly, I’m not going to speculate on what the two companies could be planning.

What I do know is that by not working together on SDN and both sides encouraging a mentality of ACI vs NSX, the two companies have driven a wedge between what combined they can offer together and what customers want. Bringing up the idea of integration between ACI and NSX with either vendor typically elicited a slightly wrinkled nose as if I just cracked open a box of week-old carry-out and then I get a question like “What do you think that integration would look like?” I’d rattle off three or four ideas such as:1. Integrate so that the customer can choose which controller—APIC or NSX—will control the physical and virtual networks.2. Federate the controllers in a way that both ACI and NSX can optimize and manage the traffic in the best way possible across both networks.3. Provide telemetry across both products to facilitate performance monitoring and troubleshooting across physical and virtual networks.4. Provide assurance to customers that they can use both products cost effectively and not be forced into various expensive choices.

Most of those ideas—along with others—I’d heard from enterprise network administrators who are both Cisco and VMware customers. Some recent stories in the tech media are showing that NSX can run perfectly well on top of ACI but that should come as no surprise. NSX traffic can and is treated like any other application traffic by ACI. The concern administrators contemplating running both ACI and NSX is that while either ACI or NSX by itself was fine for what it did, they each left capability gaps that IT have to address which would be exacerbated by running two independent networks with independent management domains.

Data center SDN simply isn’t ramping as quickly as anyone expected and I doubt the lack of ACI and NSX integration is a primary reason for the slow ramp up. Many other data center networking vendors like Arista Networks, Brocade and HPE have deep integration—as deep as VMware allows—with NSX and none of them are seeing exploding growth. But the lack of integration is a hurdle—perhaps more of a psychological than practical hurdle—for the enterprises who are both Cisco and VMware customers to get over. Wouldn’t removing that hurdle be beneficial for everyone involved?

Hint: The answer is yes.

About Mike Fratto
Mike is a senior analyst on the Business Technology and Software team covering the Enterprise Networking and Data Center Technology markets. He has extensive experience reviewing and writing about enterprise remote access, security, and network infrastructure products.

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