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After using both NSX and ACI, engineer says VMware wins his vote

Sugar Creek Packing Co. sidestepped the NSX vs. ACI debate and deployed both. Now, a senior network engineer shares which technology he would recommend to enterprises.

Almost since the inception of the software-defined networking market, many observers have speculated whether VMware...

NSX or Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure would emerge as the industry leader. Some enterprises, such as Sugar Creek Packing Co., based in Washington Court House, Ohio, have opted to deploy NSX and ACI in concert, thus maintaining flexibility and reaping benefits of both products.

We recently caught up with Sugar Creek senior network engineer Wes Dawes to talk all things networking -- from the development of his own career to the evolution of the industry. He also shared which SDN option he'd recommend to other enterprise network managers -- NSX or ACI -- after deploying both.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into networking?

Wes Dawes: Originally, I was more of a systems administrator, working with servers and storage. I worked in the financial industry and I was looking to move, as the bank I worked for was looking to be sold. This job just happened to become available here at Sugar Creek, about eight years ago. Originally my position was 50% networking and 50% servers and storage, and it kind of developed into 100% networking.

Wes Dawes, senior network engineerWes Dawes

What was the transition from servers and storage to networking like?

Dawes: It was quite a transition. I had very little experience with networking equipment. The most I'd really ever touched it was if I went out and did field work for the bank, maybe I'd help the network guy on site. I'd help rack up the equipment or I might patch in some cables, but other than that I had very limited experience.

How did you learn?

Dawes: I primarily learned on the job. Just a lot of reading at night, and picking up some spare equipment and working on it and trying to figure things out without breaking anything in our production environment. After I got my feet wet a little bit, I did some training, got a few certifications and started really enjoying networking, and continued my education.

What about networking appeals to you?

Dawes: It's just kind of an exciting part of the industry to be in. When I first started, it was new to me, so that was part of the appeal. But then, over the last few years, with everything developing and becoming more software-defined and being able to do things programmatically across the network, it's making it even more exciting. There have been all kinds of changes over the last few years and lots more to come.

How is Sugar Creek approaching the changes afoot in the networking industry?

When we started exploring NSX and ACI, it was still very unclear who was winning that race and which one was going to be the technology to end up with in the end.

Dawes: One of our latest adventures was probably within the last two years: We did a connected factory in Cambridge City, Ind., jointly with Cisco. So basically, everything in the plant -- wireless, routing and switching, telepresence, phone system, everything down to the factory floor -- is wired to the hilt. It's amazing how well everything works together and the data we are able to collect.

Within this last year -- as soon as we finished that project -- we jumped right into a software-defined data center project that we did with VMware and their NSX product. We also have some Cisco ACI in there.

Why deploy both NSX and ACI?

Dawes: When we started exploring NSX and ACI, it was still very unclear who was winning that race and which one was going to be the technology to end up with -- who was going to be the leader and give us everything that we needed. So we more or less hedged our bets on that decision and said, 'let's just put both in, and if the tides change, we can more easily maneuver around. Or maybe they are both going to be great technologies, with one complementing the other.'

After using both NSX and ACI, which would you choose today?

Dawes: There have been a lot of developments since the time that we made the decision, and I'd say VMware is definitely the route that businesses need to look to nowadays. Now, don't get me wrong, because each technology has its pros and its cons, and it all depends on the existing environment it's going into. We were in an environment that was 99% virtualized to begin with, so NSX is the right choice for us -- along with all the other VMware technologies we decided to go with in here, like [vSAN].

VMware NSX's programmability makes it much easier to make changes on the fly, without having to worry about going into the data center and running new wires or moving things around. Another big thing for us is the security features with microsegmentation. Before, we would always secure the edges of our data centers, and now, NSX allows us to bring that security down to the virtual machine level. We can get a little bit more granular with security and really take care of things.

I'd say by the end of this year, we'll probably have our security set up to a point where we feel comfortable with it. And then it will be normal operations after that.

How do you use ACI?

Dawes: It's deployed, and we don't really do a whole lot with it. It's really there for monitoring at this point. It allows us to have a single pane of glass from the Cisco side, so we can just go in and, at a glance say, 'Oh yeah, we've got some network problems going on around the ACI infrastructure.' It allows us to pinpoint issues quickly, rather than having to do more manual troubleshooting. We don't use any of the real nitty-gritty ACI features.

Does your previous experience working with servers and storage help you in your current networking position?

Dawes: It does, and that was true from the beginning, when I first started on the network side. Understanding the servers and the storage and how everything is configured on that end, and being able to tie that into the network, that's allowed us to keep our team small and make quick decisions. It's definitely helping as I go forward, now that I understand the servers the storage and I understand the network piece of it. One complements the other.

How much does the networking team interact with the server team?

Dawes: There are a few of us on the network side, and there are a couple of guys on the server side. We all sit in the same room, in the same cubicle area, and we are constantly working together. We have that division of, 'Hey, we're really good at the networking side -- but we're good at the server stuff too, and we can do that if we have to.' And the server guys are kind of the same way. They focus more on the servers, but they understand enough about networking, because they work with us so much. It really helps make us feel more like one team than two.

What advice would you give to young IT professionals just beginning their careers?

Dawes: I'd tell them to explore all of it and figure out what they enjoy, because that's the most important thing: coming to work to a job that you enjoy. And if I was trying to sway them toward the networking side of things, I'd probably end up telling them, 'Hey, the networking side is really exciting right now. There are lots of changes coming, lots of opportunities for growth, new areas that other people don't have experience in -- so the sooner you get that experience, you'll be better off.'

Would you recommend they seek out opportunities to learn about programmable networking tools like NSX and ACI?

Dawes: Absolutely. That technology is here to stay. It's still early; it's going to evolve and change a little bit, and that will be for the better I'm sure. But I don't see that going away. 

Article 5 of 6

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This was last published in April 2017

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Where do you fall in the NSX vs. ACI debate?
You need to factor the existing baseline to make a choice. In a multi-hypervisor setup ACI is better suited and it can integrate with physical workloads as well. The unlearning/learning curve for ACI is steeper..and hence getting around NSX is easier. NSX creeps over the line in this aspect.
Micro-segmentation is also supported in ACI, NSX does not offer any advantage over ACI.
ACI is almost free with Nexus 9000 switches, if you compare the price of Nexus 9000 switches with management software as opposed to Nexus 9000 with ACI, then ACI would be cheaper.
You don't need NSX if you have ACI, why would I need to add a lot of new servers and licenses to deploy an SDN that has no visibility on the physical network and could create software bottlenecks at the first place? Not to mention that the degradation that could happen when

Can you imagine a gaming workstation without a Video Acceleration card? You could argue and say, my setup is small and I don't need video acceleration cards, if that's indeed true, then you don't need what SDN solves at the first place.
The biggest cloud giant providers in the market don't even use vmware. This is all a marketing crap about SDN, and unfortunately, systems teams fell into this trap easily as they have no idea what networking 101 is.
If you're happy to spend more money buying two similar products, then it would be wise not to prefer one over the other without really understanding the materials (fabrics).
It is no more a hardware bottleneck world. Hardware speeds are achievable now equivalent of line cards. Having said that the ACI and NSX path will somewhere converge and whoever meets the point first takes the big chunk. Vmware definitely has edge because of Virtualization/SDN/Consolidation of IT Infra.  Cisco as we all know has the edge of packet level and hardware speeds. Who meets the pro's of the other wins. Cisco the Bully is definitely on a sticky wicket and nervous acquiring start-ups left and right.  Both are leaders and inspiration for technology world. But if the current Tech Century belongs to someone i.e to Vmware. Even Cisco's NFV rides on them. 
You didn't really provide any real solid explanation why major providers and enterprises do not use NSX, and aside from claims that NSX is the tech century, I don't see how NSX can provide a real multi-tenant solution without workarounds like NAT.
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