Cisco ACI and VMware NSX kumbaya?

Could Cisco and VMware be looking to integrate their virtual networking products?

Comments by Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins last week that the networking giant is open to collaborations with VMware in virtual networking raise the question: Just how would Cisco's ACI and VMware's NSX platforms could work together?

In an interview with CRN last week, Robbins spoke vaguely about potentially exploring collaborations between Cisco’s ACI and VMware’s NSX, but did not commit to any specific integrations of the two products, which have typically been seen as competitors in the market.

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Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner says there are very few customers - he estimates less than 20 - who are using ACI and NSX together. Doing so could be expensive and in some cases unnecessary, which is why Lerner is skeptical of the seriousness of integration between these products. “As it sits today, I view this largely as a marketing effort to drive adoption,” Lerner said via email. “Enterprises will pause in purchasing something if it is viewed as an either/or decision. However, if it is perceived as complementary, it reduces friction for the buyer.”

There could be opportunities to use the technologies together though. "The decision between ACI and NSX is not mutually exclusive and there are certainly some scenarios where an enterprise would utilize them both,” Lerner noted, adding that he would expect an organization to use the two virtual networking technologies in different parts of their network compared to using them one on top of another.

Fundamentally, the products are different, so there could be an opportunity for integration, says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at ZK Research and a blogger for Network World. NSX is a pure network overlay software that is used to create networks and network services. ACI enables users to create policy-driven data centers. “What you could have are Cisco ACI policies creating network profiles and controlling NSX overlays,” Kerravala says.

Better integration of the two products would be beneficial to customers in that scenario. “Both companies should think about giving customers multiple options,” he said; doing so would create a “rising tide” that would benefit both companies, he believes.

Sugar Creek, an Ohio food processing company, has spoken openly about using both NSX and ACI in a complementary fashion. Read Network World’s profile of how Sugar Creek uses ACI and NSX here.

Kerravala said there are third-party options on the market for customers who want to integrate these two products together, most notably converged infrastructure vendor VCE, which was created as a joint venture between Cisco, VMware and EMC. Cisco sold off its investment stake in VCE and it is now controlled by EMC. “What I see more and more is that customers want to move to a multi-cloud hybrid world,” Kerravala says. “Complexity is high. Customers want turnkey solutions.”

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If customers want ACI and NSX to work together, then the companies should work to support that, Kerravala says. “They both need to understand that if they did work together more customers would adopt it and they would both benefit,” Kerravala says.

Neither Cisco nor VMware would comment on future collaborations, but a VMware spokesperson provided the following statement: “Since introducing NSX, we have welcomed the opportunity to partner with all of the major networking hardware vendors including Cisco. VMware has maintained for some time now that NSX and ACI are not competitive, and partners and customers are proving this out in the market today.”

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