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Do NSX, Nexus 9000 forecasts really matter?

VMware is projecting a $100 million run rate for NSX; meanwhile Cisco says it has 1,000 customers lined up to buy its Nexus 9000 SDN switches. But neither number reveals much about SDN sales or what customers are actually seeking.

In July, VMware became the first company to release solid SDN sales projection numbers, announcing a $100 million run rate in annual revenue for its NSX network virtualization technology.

It was probably not coincidental that VMware released the projection the same week Cisco said it is finally shipping its full ACI portfolio. Until the end of July, the only available parts of the portfolio were the Nexus 9000 switches, the hardware element of the Cisco's ACI architecture.

Cisco said it had 1,000 customers in the pipeline for Nexus 9000 switches and 170 companies testing ACI with APIC controllers. The numbers seemed to suggest that the market was ripe for Cisco SDN -- that VMware's we-got-to-market-first strategy was meaningless.

But for network managers who are wading through a myriad of SDN strategies and trying to make investment decisions, neither of these sets of numbers really tells them much.

What’s behind SDN sales projections

In VMware's case, the run rate is based on NSX sales so far. Yet NSX can be sold either as a standalone license, or as part of a larger Enterprise License Agreement (ELA). So in some cases, customers are specifically buying NSX, but in others, they are buying the overall VMware stack with NSX as one element. There is no telling whether they are actually using NSX in production, or ever plan to.

"The fact that VMware will sell $100 million in NSX software -- I would ask for a breakdown of that," said Dave Chandler, a practice lead in network solutions at World Wide Technology, a channel partner for both VMware and Cisco. "How many people are actually using it? I would guess that's a very different number."

VMware spokesperson Roger Fortier said they haven't broken down how many NSX licenses were standalone, or how many customers were actually running NSX in production.

Yet Chandler also points out that Cisco's numbers are no more illustrative of the uptake of ACI than those released by VMware.

"They could say, 'We've sold millions worth of Nexus 9000s,' but that's not really ACI," Chandler said. Nexus 9000 switches can be used in Nexus OS mode without ever interacting with an ACI controller.

In the long run, it may not matter that VMware got to market first with NSX, but for now, while VMware NSX has been available for nearly a year, there has been very little hands-on interaction with Cisco ACI. "It wasn't until three or four weeks ago that we actually got hardware -- we are in the evaluation process now for customers," Chandler said.

"The marketing hype around these technologies has been astronomical," Chandler added, and customers are equally guarded around both.

What they want to see at this point is the technology in action and case studies from teams that have used ACI and NSX in production and have identified some of the challenges. Beyond that, many "want to see more than 1.0 on both of these things," Chandler said.

Is there really a need for a VMware-Cisco face off?

Ultimately, as much as Cisco and VMware square off around SDN, many channel partners say the technologies address distinct scenarios and will therefore attract differing IT shops.

Scott Schilling, a senior security/infrastructure consultant at Meridian Group International, which sells both Cisco and VMware, says so far he has seen greater demand for NSX than ACI. But he's busy addressing the intersection of data center network virtualization and security, and his customers very often already have VMware hypervisors and are seeking specific security measures, such as micro-segmentation, that NSX enables.

Chandler says many customers could end up using both NSX and ACI. Some may begin virtualizing the network with a software-only option like NSX, which in many cases will already be part of their VMware hypervisor. But when customers begin to look for a holistic data center strategy that links together physical and virtual infrastructure, they're likely to seek out ACI, he said. If they go that route, they could still run their NSX tunneling inside a larger ACI environment.

When all this begins to take shape -- a year or two down the line -- it's not likely anyone will remember these initial sales numbers in a newly forming market.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

Next Steps

Breaking down VMware NSX

Can Cisco ACI updates protect older Nexus switches?

This was last published in August 2014

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What information do you need before making an SDN decision?