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Cisco ACI software hasn't found a place in enterprise data centers

Cisco ACI software is being used by less than a third of enterprises that have bought the application's companion hardware, the Nexus 9000.

Most enterprises have yet to find a reason to use Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure -- an indication that the future of the vendor's modern data center technology remains a work in progress.

Only 30% of companies buying Cisco Nexus 9000 switches, which provide native support for ACI, are also using the SDN technology, according to Gartner. Also, revenue from Cisco ACI software and the rest of what the company calls its next-generation data center portfolio is not rising as fast as some industry analysts would expect.

The growth rate from the first quarter of fiscal 2016 to the same period in 2017 fell from 140% to 33%, according to Cisco. The earlier spurt was likely due to the small customer base for the young product line in the previous year.

Nevertheless, the latest number falls short of some analysts' expectations for the portfolio, which includes ACI and Nexus 9000 and 3000 switches. "The 33% growth rate is very low, indeed, given how small the customer pool likely still is," said John Burke, an analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

Shortcomings of Cisco ACI software

Analysts list several reasons why enterprises are passing on Cisco ACI software. One barrier to adoption is the lack of a compelling reason to spend the time and money to train engineers in the use of the software.

Today, most companies are content managing networks with the familiar command-line interface (CLI) in switches. Using ACI would require learning a new paradigm in network management that's policy-based. Engineers would also have to learn ACI's GUI.

"Most hardcore Cisco people would be just as happy staying in the CLI world," said Todd Pugh, director of IT at Sugar Creek Packing Co., based in Washington Court House, Ohio. "The GUI is just something else for them to learn."

Even companies using Cisco ACI software are taking a cautious approach to the product, said Andrew Lerner, an analyst at Gartner. Most of those organizations use ACI to manage groups of physical switches as a single entity, instead of its core capability of network orchestration.

Other hindrances to ACI adoption include Cisco requiring customers to buy Nexus 9000 switches to get the software, the fear of getting locked into the vendor's hardware and software stack, and the immaturity of the 4-year-old product.

VMware NSX over ACI

Negatives of Cisco ACI software have convinced some companies to use VMware's competing NSX virtual networking application instead. Consulting firm VertitechIT Inc., based in Holyoke, Mass., uses NSX and VMware's other virtualization technology to consolidate computing, storage and networking into hyper-converged systems used by large healthcare organizations.

NSX is used to connect the systems across multiple data centers to manage computing and storage as one large pool, said Michael Feld, CEO of VeritechIT, which does not sell Cisco or VMware products.

"We do select a lot of Cisco gear, but we don't use ACI," Feld said.

Food manufacturer Sugar Creek is using NSX, VMware's virtualized storage product vSAN and Cisco Unified Computing System to build all-in-one systems like VeritechIT's. However, Sugar Creek bought Nexus 9000 switches so it could use ACI in five years if Cisco makes it better than NSX.

"In that amount of time, our expectation is that Cisco will make larger inroads with the technology that we will be able to take advantage of," Pugh said.

Other businesses that have bought Nexus switches could also decide to flip on ACI if Cisco provides a good reason. Brian Dooley, a data center network engineer for OneNeck IT Solutions, is optimistic. OneNeck, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., resells Cisco and VMware products.

"I would venture a guess that there will be purchasing of ACI" in the coming 12 to 18 months, Dooley said.

For that to happen, Cisco will have to address ACI's shortfalls and provide a killer use case for the software.

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