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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cisco’s Application-Centric Infrastructure: Tighter Integration

ACI is an important step forward in unifying physical and virtual resources and improving application experiences

Among the most important requirements in delivering superior application experiences as the industry transitions to an increasingly virtualized environment is accomplishing tighter integration between applications themselves and the underlying physical and virtual resources working together to support them. The ability of companies to meet users’ expectations and the needs of increasingly diverse and demanding applications depends on achieving this goal.  

Cisco has taken a strong step forward toward achieving the goal with the introduction of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) framework, the related Nexus 9000 family of switches, and perhaps most important, its Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC).

The Nexus 9000 family of data center switches is designed to achieve efficiency, agility, and scale to support both virtualized and legacy applications. It is tuned to enforcing diverse application policies dynamically and charts out a practical path for supporting both types of applications. As such, it is an attractive “underlay” networking platform for the emerging environment.

In parallel, to address the needs of integrating policies across the broader range of data center resources that need orchestration, Cisco has moved toward elastic and extensible policy management platforms for cloud and data center infrastructures with its APIC policy management system. APIC combines a compelling mix of prepackaged functionality with the modularity and openness needed to participate in a variety of data center environments. It provides 1) a solution that blends policies that applications require in whole data center implementations; 2) support for combining physical computing infrastructures (such as UCS) into the same application policy framework integration of physical and virtual overlay networks (in the Nexus product series, for example); 3) via ecosystem partners’ integration of platforms with APICs functionality, the policies can be applied to physical and virtualized storage management systems (NetApp and EMC), hypervisors/virtual machines (VMware, Microsoft, Citrix); L4-7 network service engines (Symantec, F5, Citrix), additional service orchestration platforms (OpenStack, IBM, Microsoft, VMware), and application platforms (such as SAP).

APIC is also open via APIs for extension in northbound and southbound directions, acknowledging the need for the openness so crucial to support heterogeneous data center environments. Cisco has also highlighted APIC as the initial entry in its family of software control platforms needed across data center, WAN, and access network areas in the Cisco ONE (Open Network Environment) framework, further underscoring its relevance in helping achieve holistic policy management for applications in an extended network infrastructure.

With all these positives, will APIC be the one or the only policy and service management software system customers need to achieve superior application services moving forward? Probably not. Although APIC is indeed a strong step forward and supports an extensive range of service management features, it’s realistic to envision a mix of service management tools covering the full range of components. However, by presenting a unified base for linking the network environment with multiple other components likely to be mixed together uniquely in each customer’s environment, the APIC platform presents a well-designed, modular option that solves the physical and virtual network coordination problem and is also available to help solve parts of the application services management problem in the data center.

There will certainly be additional application management tools and systems for managing virtual computing, storage and services that come from other sources and may work together with Cisco’s ACI to achieve an improved application delivery design. In this way Cisco is demonstrating that overlay and underlay resources can be orchestrated automatically to support diverse application requirements and that a modular policy management fabric is within reach for many customers’ environments.

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