Further Thoughts on Cisco’s Latest Spin-In Venture

This is a follow-up post to my last missive regarding Cisco’s latest reported spin-in venture, Insieme (not Insiemi, apparently). As you will recall, we had heard for some time that Cisco’s masters of the spin-in venture were getting back in the saddle for at least one more stretch run.

The question had become not whether they’d come back, but what they would put on the playlist for their reunion. Now, as indicated in an article in the New York TImes, the widely held assumption is that Insieme will provide Cisco’s answer to software-defined networking (SDN).

But, as we know, SDN means different things to different vendors. Given the composition and capabilities of the team at Insieme, I wouldn’t expect this group to recreate the sort of logically centralized control plane and server-based programmable networking that the likes of Nicira and Big Switch Networks have championed.

ASICs in the Mix 

After all, the central protagonists at Insieme — Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero, Prem Jain — are hardware engineers. Throughout their long, storied, and illustrious careers, they have built switches. There is no reason to think they will be cast against type in this particular venture. A variation on what they’ve done in their previous spin-in ventures for Cisco —  Andiamo, which was responsible for Cisco’s storage-area networking (SAN) switches, and Nuova, which provided Cisco with its Nexus data-center switches — is probably what they’ll do this time, too.

Admittedly, there is some software talent on the Insieme roster. Network World’s Jim Duffy reported that Ronak Desai, the architect of Cisco’s NX-OS FabricPath and Virtual Device Context software, and of the MDS SAN switch operating system, is on the team. Michael Smith, a distinguished engineer who worked on Cisco’s Nexus 1000v virtual switch, also might be part of the Insieme squad.

Still, John Chambers recently reiterated Cisco’s unswerving commitment to the propriety switching ASIC, which Cisco sees a point of differentiation against Arista Networks and others. Chambers’ words suggest that Cisco isn’t about to get the newfangled SDN religion. In fact, if anything, they suggest that Cisco is still working from its well-thumbed playbook of ASIC-based switches in a network-centric world.

Moreover, with Tom Edsall, the lead ASIC architect on the Nexus and MDS switching lines, reportedly on board with Insieme, we can probably safely deduce that the ASIC will be front and center in whatever the spin-in effort delivers. So, if it’s an SDN architecture Insieme has been mandated to deliver, it will be one with a distributed control plane and absolutely no role for dumb, off-the-rack switches.

Two Possible Scenarios

With regard to the increasingly contested definition of SDN — look no further than the marketing messages of certain vendors or to the software-driven networking hijinks now occurring in the IETF — there’s also the possibility that what the Insieme pack are doing could be only incidentally connected to what many consider SDN.

With that in mind, I want to turn to some intriguing speculation that William Koss, now at Plexxi, has provided on what he believes Cisco’s latest spin-in venture might be building. In a post on his blog, Koss reviews Cisco’s switching history, much of it involving the three musketeers now reuniting at Insieme, He then explains why Cisco does spin-in ventures before he offers his assessment of what Insieme might be  trying to accomplish.

He offers two possible paths Insieme might take. The first path would involve Cisco attending to what Koss terms “unfinished business” (including Brocade) in the storage space. In this scenario, the Insieme team would build a successor switch to the Nexus line with storage-networking hooks. This switch would be intended as a crushing reply to Xsigo’s I/O Director, while simultaneously representing an attempt to limit further market encroachments by Arista Networks, currently well entrenched in low-latency application environments, and also to potentially inoculate against potential traction from SDN startups such as Nicira and Big Switch.

As for the second option, he envisions something proceeding along an “SDN OpenFlow strategy path.” In this scenario, Koss foresees a  new platform that functions as a “Nexus OS-to-OpenFlow arbitration box,” which he describes as analogous to a session border controller (SBC) between the two networks. This would give Cisco’s installed base to SDN-like capabilities while keeping them wrapped inside Cisco’s proprietary cocoon.

Surprise Not Likely

In my view, both paths described by Koss are plausible scenarios for Insieme.  My gut feeling is that the first is more likely. The second option is more software intensive, and it would seem to feature less of the ASIC and storage-networking expertise possessed by known members of the Insieme team. Perhaps Mario, Luca, and Prem will blaze an entirely different path and surprise us all, but Koss might be on the right track with his speculative musings.

As always, we shall see.

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