Cisco network virtualization acquisition: What about VXLAN?

The acquisition of vCider could mean a new Cisco network virtualization strategy. But could it also make VXLAN and NVGRE irrelevant network overlay protocols?

Cisco's acquisition of vCider, a maker of network overlay and controller technology, may indicate a growing rift between Cisco and VMware and could lead to Cisco's retreat from the VXLAN standard.

Cisco quietly announced the vCider acquisition on a corporate blog last week. In fact, the company didn't bother to mention the acquisition or its network virtualization plans during an Interop NY keynote the very next morning. Instead Doug Merritt, a Cisco senior vice president, used the stage time to outline the new Unified Access strategy.

When SearchNetworking asked for details about the acquisition, Cisco offered only a brief emailed statement: "vCider's technology is complementary to the Cisco Nexus 1000v virtual switch and will be integrated into Cisco's Open Network Environment (ONE) strategy." The technology will be used to advance Cisco's OpenStack Quantum Network service, according to the statement. Cisco's Quantum offers an open API for OpenStack integration that allows engineers to program physical and virtual networks. Ultimately, Quantum will be used for Cisco's evolving Network as a Service (NaaS) strategy.

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Cisco and VMware have had a strong networking partnership until recently. Cisco created the Nexus 1000v for network visibility and management inside the virtual stack, and it played a hand in developing VXLAN, the VMware network overlay protocol. Cisco also has a small ownership stake in VMware.

VmMware's recent acquisition of Nicira Networks, a network virtualization and overlay innovator, appeared to weaken the VMware-Cisco alliance. Many industry observers believed Nicira's virtual switching and network virtualization technology was a threat to Cisco.

Both companies reaffirmed their partnership, but VMware announced a slew of networking features at VMworld that had little to do with Cisco's technology. Now Cisco has acquired vCider's network virtualization technology, which appears to be an alternative to VMware's Nicira technology.

Ultimately network pros don't care about the warmth of relation between VMware and Cisco, but they do care about the future of the VXLAN standard. VXLAN is a tunneling protocol that enables the creation of logical networks, which can be decoupled from underlying physical networks and support virtual workloads across data center networks. Many hope the protocol will be an industry standard that underlies multivendor, software-based cloud networks. 

Until now, VXLAN only saw competition from NVGRE, a standard from the Microsoft camp. Third-party vendors had already begun developing support of virtual network services using both of these protocols. In fact, at VMworld this summer we saw a slew of vendors launch VXLAN gateways that would extend physical network services into virtual networks based on VXLAN. These same vendors said they would soon release technology with NVGRE support. This wave of VXLAN and NVGRE support raised the possibility of interoperable network virtualization.

If Cisco develops its own tunneling standard (which IBM also says it will do) the networking industry could yet again find itself in a battle of proprietary protocols that will make it impossible to build universal virtual network environments.

What does a controller mean to Cisco?

Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that the vCider acquisition -- made the same day HP launched an SDN strategy with an OpenFlow controller and an expanded switching line -- involves a network controller.

Until now, Cisco's response to software defined networking (SDN) has involved adding programmability to its networks without decoupling and centralizing the control plane, a stark contrast from other companies that have launched SDN strategies with centralized controllers. We'll keep an eye on what Cisco plans to do with the vCider controller and whether the company will stick with its distributed programmable model or embrace a more centralized controller model like NEC, HP and others.

This was last published in October 2012

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