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Farewell Cisco ACE, but perhaps not Cisco load balancing

Cisco has officially killed its ACE line, but says it may not be out of the load balancer business. What will it take to make a competitive Cisco load balancer?

Cisco confirmed this week that it would halt production of its Application Control Engine (ACE), but the company says it may not be out of the load balancer business.

If that's the case, however, Cisco only has a sliver of time to make a move before it forever loses the shrinking portion of the market it once held. What's more, it'll have to shake its sluggish reputation when it comes to application networking. The company has been slow in adding load balancing features for a converged, virtual data center environment, and it's rumored that Cisco's own sales staff and channel partners have recommended load balancers from F5 for fear that going with a Cisco ACE would ruin an otherwise solid Unified Computing System (UCS) installation.

As for next steps, a Cisco spokesperson said, "There are a number of boxes we've been reviewing," but he continued, "The new road is still being determined." A new load balancer scenario could involve partnering with a third-party provider or developing a new product line, he added. In the meantime, the company will continue to support the installed base, but will not be providing updates or new features.

Cisco load balancer part of a larger unified data center solution?

The changing nature of the virtual data center and the cloud have placed entirely new demands on load balancers and application optimization tools, and this leads Gartner Inc. distinguished analyst Joe Skorupa to believe that Cisco may be working on a larger data center solution in which a home-spun load balancer would only be one supporting element.

"We have already said that we believe Cisco will be in the storage market by 2015," Skorupa said. 

Ultimately Cisco could have an integrated storage, compute and networking solution and an application delivery controller could be part of that. 

It's possible that Cisco will use its Insieme spin-in, with star engineers Prem Jain, Mario Mazzola and Luca Cafiero, to develop this strategy. It's been rumored that the highly secretive Cisco-owned organization is working on a software-defined networking strategy or a super performance 100 GbE switch, but Skorupa said these engineers "wouldn't get out of bed in the morning to build a switch."

It is rumored that Cisco's own sales staff and channel partners have recommended load balancers from F5 for fear that going with a Cisco ACE would ruin an otherwise solid Unified Computing System (UCS) installation.

Partnering up and going the virtual appliance route

While developing a larger strategy may seem sexy, it could be easier for Cisco to consider the wide array of acquisition or partnership targets available. It would make sense for Cisco to implement a load balancer developed by another company as a virtual appliance within UCS.

Ethereal Mind blogger Greg Ferro isn't a huge Cisco ACE fan, and upon hearing initial ACE end-of-development rumors he wrote, "Cisco may decide the future of these (mostly failed) products is to be software appliances in private clouds. This would reduce the cost of bringing the products to market by no longer needing to build custom hardware devices or shift to commoditisation."

He added that Cisco could "move to using UCS servers as appliances" running ACE as software. However, that could also be the case with an acquired application, as Skorupa suggested.

"They could do something unusual and cut a deal with Riverbed" where Cisco would give up its WAAS offering and pick up Riverbed's application performance optimization solution along with the company's load balancing technology that came from the Zeus Technology acquisition, said Skorupa. The Zeus load balancing product, now branded by Riverbed as Stingray, is feature-rich and could run easily as an application within UCS, he added.

Another option would be to acquire a company like A10 Networks, which is smaller and cheaper, but has innovative technology that is swiftly gaining traction. Cisco customers could also run A10's application as a software appliance within UCS.

According to new research from the Dell'Oro Group, virtual appliances drove overall growth in the data center appliance market, rising 37% in the second quarter of 2012, and within that, virtual WAN optimization apps grew 58%, while virtual application delivery controllers grew 18%.

Where did Cisco load balancers go wrong?

Cisco has never been able to catch a lead in the load balancer market. Smaller, nimbler companies like F5, Radware, Citrix and A10 have been solely focused on application networking, while Cisco spoke old-school networking, according to Skorupa.

"Cisco never understood that it was about applications. When F5 built an ADC, Cisco just built a faster load balancer -- they didn't understand the market was undergoing a fundamental transformation."

Ferro wrote, "I've used the Cisco ACE and it's moderately competent load balancer. It's missing many features or functions and is generally hard to configure and maintain."

Cisco sales people knew routers and how to talk about link aggregation protocol and Open Shortest Path First (OSPF), but they didn't know enough about HTML, Javascript and Eclipse, Skorupa explained.

Little time to waste

Whatever Cisco decides to do, there is little time to waste before it loses any opportunity in the market. Within 24 hours of the news that Cisco would be ending ACE, load balancer rival F5 saw share value jump 8%, and A10 offered a Cisco ACE trade-in program that offered users who switched to A10 a rebate of $24,000 and a series of installation and migration services.

"Coming back is going to be hard, especially once the channel starts selling something else," said Skorupa, who said he heard rumors swirling among engineers and the channel nearly a month ago that ACE was ending.

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