Cisco vision takes networking to the cloud in a big way

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Cisco is taking the wraps off an overarching architecture it expects will let enterprise customers manage and control its vast arsenal of networking hardware and software for years to come.

The Cisco Networking Cloud, unveiled at this week’s Cisco Live! customer event, will involve a broad range of software and cloud system integration and has as its ultimate, if somewhat vague, goal to converge networking platforms over time, culminating in a unified management platform that works on premises or cloud for improved visibility and enterprise automation, according to Jonathan Davidson, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco Networking.

“We are bringing together campus and branch, data center, compute, IoTSD-WAN, and more. Cisco Networking Cloud binds the applications under Cisco Networking, including Meraki, ThousandEyes, and Cisco Catalyst to act as one. In addition, The Cisco Networking Cloud replaces isolated pockets of data with telemetry, assurance, and proactive analytics across the network,” Davidson said.

“We see this as a way of simplifying our existing portfolio by converging and connecting fragmented platforms that exchange data through automation and deliver a unified experience that lets organization manage their Cisco networking products from a single place.”

That single place will primarily be integration enabled through Cisco’s cloud-based Meraki dashboard, which can manage and troubleshoot a wide variety of devices and networks from a single screen or its on-premises DNA Center central management platform, now called Catalyst Center. 

Some of the work to integrate Cisco’s major platform management into the Meraki dashboard has already begun. For example, Cisco offers Cloud Management for Cisco Catalyst, which manages and troubleshoots Catalyst switching and wireless campus and branch devices from the Meraki dashboard. 

Meraki management already supports enterprise networking for WLAN and SD-WAN infrastructure in campus and branch networks, and Cisco will expand its capabilities to include more access devices including wireless access points, according to Davidson.

The other key service that will fall under the Networking Cloud umbrella is Cisco Nexus Cloud, which is based on the company’s infrastructure-management and -monitoring package, Intersight. It is now offered as a service to manage networked resources across public cloud, private cloud, and edge-computing environments.

Cisco Networking Cloud is important as it addresses a substantial weakness, according to Andrew Lerner, vice president with Gartner. “From a product perspective, the biggest challenge for Cisco continues to be integrating existing and acquired products and teams into more cohesive solutions that enable enterprise clients to modernize their IT systems,” Lerner said.

“Specifically, today, one of the biggest concerns we regularly hear from Cisco customers is that the Cisco networking portfolio is fragmented. There are separate management systems and controllers across the various products. For example, Nexus, Catalyst, Meraki, Viptela, are all primarily managed via different controllers and management systems,” Lerner said. “This creates challenges of swivel-chair operations and makes automation more difficult. Further this makes it harder for a customer to make the right selection and also creates issues if a customers’ needs and requirements change, as it limits investment protection.” 

Cisco Networking Cloud is a vision to fix this issue, Lerner said. “The vision is to bring all these separate systems together under a common management paradigm; a unified platform that should be able to manage your entire networking portfolio. This includes a common UI/look and feel across products, more common automation frameworks and APIs,” Lerner said.   

“This is a much needed improvement to the Cisco strategy and should help customers improve their day 2 operations. It should also help Cisco to be more competitive in the market with other vendors."

Other experts agreed.

“Since Cisco acquired Meraki, some customers have been asking a simple question: ‘Why can’t we have this simple, cloud-based management experience with all Cisco products?’ Not just simple, but unified. One cloud-based console that manages switching, Wi-Fi, security, routing, SD-WAN,” said Shamus McGillicuddy, research director for the network-management practice at Enterprise Management Associates.

“Skilled network engineers have traditionally preferred discrete, technical management interfaces that allowed them to dig deep into functionality when configuring and managing devices. Now there’s less time for that. Engineering teams are understaffed and overworked. So simpler, unified management experiences are essential. That’s what Cisco is aiming for,” McGillicuddy said.

That is Cisco's stated goal. “The idea is that all of our products and technologies can seamlessly interconnect with each other, but also if customers decide to put their own value or automation or other things on top of that platform, it can be done in a very simple and seamless way,” Davidson said.

That will require some serious software integration, but that is also part of Cisco’s API First strategy, which prioritizes API development in all Cisco products to ensure efficient communication among applications, services, and systems.

“There aren’t enough details yet to know how Cisco will tackle this. But it will take a ton of software integration. Look how long it took them to provide Catalyst switch visibility in Meraki’s console, without even going so far as to enable config and change management. Cisco has invested a lot of time and effort into developing DNAC (now rebranded at Catalyst Center). I imagine they’re going to try to build around that, integrate a lot of stuff through that platform. But the details are lacking right now,” McGillicuddy said.

Single sign-on

Part of the Cloud Networking announcement included some new software and enhancements as well. For example Cisco said it would be implementing new single sign-on (SSO) technology that will let customers logon and navigate between different Cisco cloud networking platforms through shared menus and integration.

The idea is to link an API key exchange/repository with SSO, on top of this cross-platform connectivity, makes it easier to monitor across Cisco networking platforms at scale and exchange data through automation, easing operations, and reducing errors, according to Cisco.

SSO also helps eliminate siloed operations as everyone can access the resources they need wherever and whenever they need access, according to a blog by Mary Piontkowski, head of product design at Cisco Meraki, and Srinivas Kotamraju, vice president of product management, Data Center Networking, at Cisco.

Better visibility

In addition to SSO, Cisco said it will more tightly integrate the Meraki dashboard with its ThousandEyes network-intelligence gathering software. It will include the technology in its WebEx collaboration package as well as with Meraki MX security and SD-WAN devices to more easily monitor those environments to determine when user experience is less than ideal and to pinpoint failures.

“Adding ThousandEyes support to those environments means that we are adding  over a million additional potential endpoints inside of the infrastructure to make it easier for customers to deploy and get visibility from,” Davidson said.

The company is also bolstering its Cloud Management for Catalyst package by adding the ability to troubleshoot and more easily manage Catalyst devices. Largely for monitoring those devices until now, customers will be able to do things like streamline packet capture and see the command line interface with the dashboard and troubleshoot problems, Davidson said.

The Nexus Dashboard will provide real-time and historical insights for power consumption of all IT equipment in their data center and estimate the energy footprint of their data center operations, Davidson said. 

Nexus Dashboard will also provide AI Data Center Blueprint for Networking, which will offer enterprises looking to develop AI-based applications a way to set up their networks to handle the additional transaction load. For example, it will detail how to implement InfiniBand-to-Ethernet network migrations, and large-scale machine-learning fabrics.

“With visibility into AI workloads via Cisco Nexus Dashboard and
automation templates, customers can meet the demand for specific network performance characteristics such as deterministic load-balancing, line-rate transmission, congestion management and no-drop characteristics with their Cisco Nexus 9000 and NX-OS implementations, according to Davidson. 

The dashboard includes automation templates and provides added visibility to aid in building and managing data centers that have to handle AI workloads, Davidson said. “It absolutely has to be lossless and also there's a tremendous need for low latency as well,” he said.