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New Cisco ACI fabric stretches across multiple data centers

The latest major release of the Cisco ACI fabric, ACI 3.0, is aimed at large enterprises looking for a single console to deliver policy-driven network services across multiple data centers.

Cisco's third major release of its Application Centric Infrastructure lets companies run the vendor's software-defined...

networking architecture across multiple data centers, excluding those of the major public cloud providers.

Introduced Thursday, Cisco ACI 3.0 can provide network services to applications running in a maximum of five data centers. Each facility can run an ACI fabric with as many as 400 leaf switches.

Cisco has aimed its latest ACI fabric upgrade at large enterprises that want to expand their use of the policy-driven form of software-based networking from a single data center to several facilities. Companies demanding multisite networking are typically at the cutting edge of technology.

A recent survey of 200 IT organizations found 90% working on networking projects that spanned multiple data centers, according to analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates, based in Boulder, Colo. More than a quarter of those companies planned to connect five data centers or more.

With ACI 3.0, Cisco is providing a competitive product to sell to those companies, said EMA analyst Shamus McGillicuddy. "Multicloud and multidata fabrics are a must-have for these cutting-edge companies."

Cisco ACI fabrics connect across data centers

Cisco is competing with virtualization vendor VMware in letting companies replicate the vendors' respective application-centric networking environments so customers can manage a multisite configuration as one. The core of VMware's approach is its NSX network overlay, while Cisco uses its hardware as the foundation.

Companies that want to access all the capabilities of ACI 3.0 will have to use Cisco's Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) to build in each data center a networking fabric comprised of the vendor's Nexus 9000 switches. Once that is done, the customer can connect each structure to an APIC-powered appliance that presents a single view of the multisite network.

From the appliance's software console, network engineers can create and distribute application-centric traffic instructions to defined groups of switches in the form of policies. Also, management and monitoring tools can pull network and application performance data through the appliance's APIC APIs.

Cisco ACI fabric

ACI fabric's multisite capabilities

Across multiple sites, ACI 3.0 can support up to one second control plane latency, said Srinivas Kotamraju, director of ACI product management at Cisco. Traffic to an application that suddenly goes down in one data center can be redirected to a backup in another facility without changing the IP address.

Other multisite capabilities include taking a switch offline for maintenance or troubleshooting without disrupting the traffic flow. ACI 3.0 also provides latency monitoring between endpoints, such as ports and application tiers.

ACI 3.0 extends all policy-related functionality for virtual machines and bare-metal applications to containers in multiple sites. Cisco also provides integration between Kubernetes and ACI policies. Kubernetes is an open source system for managing Linux containers.

"The container stuff is most interesting for forward-looking developers and companies," said Dan Conde, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., based in Milford, Mass.

ACI 3.0 is not supported in public clouds, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform. Cisco plans to extend ACI fabric capabilities into public cloud environments using their respective APIs, Kotamraju said. Cisco has not provided a timetable.

Rival VMware has started to build a bridge between a customer's virtualized data center and Amazon. The technology, however, remains a work in progress, with very few production deployments.

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Why would your organization choose Cisco ACI or VMware NSX to manage a network fabric across data centers?
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