Musing: Cisco ACI Validates The Independent Network Operating System Model

The Cisco Nexus 9000 supports two versions of network operating system on the device. You can buy some models of the Nexus 9000 family today that run NX-OS just like the NX6K, NX7K etc and late in 2014 “NX-OS Plus” will be available. Two operating systems for the same switch isn’t new for Cisco if you remember the switch from CatOS to IOS-SX but it is new as strong endorsement of network operating systems on network devices based on Linux.




Now, from the whitepaper Cisco NX-OS Software Enhancements on Cisco Nexus 9000 Series Switches

Cisco NX-OS, when running on Cisco Nexus 9000 series is built on the new Linux Version 3.4.10 64-bit kernel, an improved version of the Linux 2.6 kernel. This new kernel version currently provides the best balance of advanced features, maturity, and stability. These characteristics provide the solid foundation of resilience and robustness necessary for any network device OS powering the mission-critical environment of today’s enterprise-class data centers.

In the last year or so, we have seen companies like Cumulus, PICA8, Arista  and Big Switch who make operating systems for network switches based on Linux and custom kernel modules. Both companies products are based Linux and work with an approved list of vendor hardware who make compatible products based on the Broadcom Trident silicon. Of course, Arista EOS has the same architecture but has their own hardware for tighter integration.

It strikes me that Cisco ACI effectively validates the business model of independent network operating system. The logic that Cisco is willing to build and support multiple operating systems for merchant silicon, therefore this is not a weird or unusual concept. While the last decade of product architecture is that you “buy hardware and get custom software ‘ it would seem that Cisco has directly embraced the decoupling of software from the hardware.

People will ask whether this is good for Cisco’s revenue and product strategy. I don’t think that its clear what the impact is. John Chambers said during the Cisco ACI announcement that embracing Merchant Silicon allowed Cisco to achieve time to market, low-cost and faster lead time while custom silicon provided features, function and better performance (I hope I got that right).

The Nexus 9000 is a combination of merchant silicon and custom silicon. It not clear yet what exactly how the ACI silicon works in relation but I’m guessing that larger TCAM, internal buses for forwarding and flow handling as well as some localised controller functions are what is necessary.

The EtherealMind View

I think Cisco has validated the overall market for independent networking operating system  by offering two operating systems for the Nexus 9000. It’s possible that this will endorse startups in the market and give them greater traction.

On the other hand, early signs are that Cisco has priced the NX9K hardware to be competitive which will remove smaller companies advantage.

The flip side of this is to be concerned about the software pricing and licensing of the Cisco ACI software in late 2014. But more on this in another post.