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Ask Cisco, VMware if their SDN interoperates, I dare you

The Cisco, VMware frenemy stage is over. Instead the companies are waging a vitriolic SDN battle that may be good for savvy customers.

For the past year or so, whenever I've had the chance to stop by a Cisco or VMware booth to talk SDN, I've asked the same set of three questions:

How does your solution differ from the competition?

Do you interoperate with the competition?

What's the best solution to be as future-proof as possible?

I figure if the set of questions remains constant, any changes in response would reflect evolving vendor strategy. And that's exactly what happened with both Cisco and VMware.

A year ago, both Cisco and VMware booth staffs would follow the same script. They'd differentiate themselves by their strongest features in order to prove themselves a more compelling option. Then they'd hedge their statements with a "but," explaining how clients could, in fact, integrate the technologies for a complete solution, wrapping up the conversation with a tech version of We are the World

My how things have changed in Cisco, VMware rhetoric

Skip ahead to spring 2014. I'm still asking the same leading questions, but answers from both sides can basically be characterized as, "Oh, [the competition] is dumb, there's no interoperability and don't use them."

Although VMware reps might consider recommending against Cisco, that's a great way to lose a sales opportunity if the customer happens to be a happy Cisco shop.

It should be noted that I've asked these questions from multiple parts of each company. I ask the Nexus guys, the vCenter guys, the Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) evangelists and the NSX marketing engineers. Sure, previously there were a couple of zealots in each camp eager to express superiority over their former partner, but there seems to be increasing concentrations of weaponized dislike.

Why should we care about the Cisco-VMware vitriol?

It's important for us as administrators to consider a change in vendor messages carefully. The stakes have changed as the offered stacks from each company have become larger and affect more parts of the infrastructure. Extricating yourself from a non-optimal solution in your environment could be time-consuming and expensive.

To be clear, I think both companies offer advantages depending on the network you're planning to SDN-enable.  But some of the messaging now seems to be that they're both the best solution for any network and that's unlikely to be true.

If this duopolistic battle continues, VMware will feel the pain

In the long term, SDN will realistically be a multi-front war with everyone from Plexxi to Big Switch lobbing attacks from many angles.

But should the vendors ramp up this duopolistic battle, marketing against one another for control of programmatic networking, VMware could take the biggest blow.

More on Cisco and VMware's SDN battle

Cisco vs. VMware SDN: Understand the differences

Cisco and VMware: Which will network pros choose?

Why VCE Vblock won't die in the Cisco-VMware battle

Competitors sound off on Cisco ACI

Networkers say Cisco SDN is far superior, if you can rip and replace

Will VMware network virtualization launch a turf war?

Until now, Cisco has been a valuable partner for VMware. In a battle with VMware, Cisco has an ace up its configurable infrastructure sleeve with Unified Computing System (UCS). UCS also supports Microsoft Hyper-V and Citrix XenServer. Cisco can sell SDN plus the virtualization option of its choice along with UCS hardware, all in one blue-green bundle. It's an approach that might not only get the datacenter under control, but with Insieme could extend well past the firewall into the WAN in a multi-vendor way. 

That puts VMware at a classic stack disadvantage. Although VMware reps might consider recommending against Cisco, that's a great way to lose a sales opportunity if the customer happens to be a happy Cisco shop. And with Cisco's dominance in VMware's target datacenter networks, that's going to require a deft sales touch.

Of course, there will be organizations that use white label top-of-rack boxes running Broadcom silicon, and NSX should do well in those environments. However, it's going to be tough to beat the performance of Cisco ASICs upgraded with SDN that is designed to support 40G and beyond. Ever-increasing service concentration onto fewer and faster links only exacerbates the challenge.

How the Cisco, VMware battle could benefit customers

We may never know what got the frenemies openly taking shots at each other's SDN strategies. But my gut says they're starting to bump heads inside actual sales situations now that enterprises are building out real SDN solutions.

If that's true, it's great news for network engineers. The only way sales teams get their backs up is if real solutions are being attached to invoices. Customers will now have leverage to negotiate. Getting SDN bits in the field is indeed great for us all.

About the author
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical-product marketing manager atSolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in the high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at Patrick.Hubbard@solarwinds.com.

This was last published in May 2014

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Is it necessary for Cisco and VMware to make their SDN technology interoperable?
Market thong: to allow the market to be sustainable, allowing multiple suppliers of the SDN product, instead of going towards a monopoly where only one vendow appears to win, which is not desirable as it leads toward complacency, and lack of motivation for innovation and progress of the technology.
If they don't take it upon themselves to sort this out, it will take a standards body to arbitrate and prevent the (predicted) ensuing victory of Cisco forcing its own unique "secret sauce" proprietary implementations on the world and the inevitable vendor lock-in. In truth, I believe this process (with Cisco) has served the networking world rather well in the past (look at the number of IEEE etc standards that started out as Cisco protocols) but does history have to repeat itself yet again?
Having a single company control one part of the management stack goes against the principles of openness.