What Cisco’s new programmable switches mean for you

Cisco is making a big deal out of new programmability features in its new line of Catalyst 9000 Switches

To help ring in the 2017 New Year, CNN wanted to do a live shot from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, but had an issue: “They were concerned about being out at sea, would they have the ability to live-stream?” says Royal Caribbean’s CIO Mike Giresi.

The answer was yes, and the live-shot went off without a hitch, in part because the ship’s Cisco network gear was programmable to prioritize the video traffic

As an early implementer, Royal Caribbean has found benefits from regarding Cisco’s programmable infrastructure as a flexible asset that can be driven by software. “There are huge advantages to looking at the network as a software layer,” Giresi says. “It gives us the ability to create products, drive an experience and deliver services that are integrated with the infrastructure.”

+RELATED: Why Cisco's new intent-based networking could be a big deal +

Cisco’s newest line of Catalyst 9000 switches, including the 9300, 9400 and 9500 have some of the most advanced programmability features of any Cisco products to date, and are part of Cisco's initial rollout of intent-based networking.

The new switches include a custom ASIC that Cisco Nexus Product Manager Sachin Gupta says allow it to support protocols of today and the future. “It’s future-proof for IoT, security and many other emerging use cases,” he says. For customers like Royal Caribbean, it allows them to “embed infrastructure into the software development cycle,” Giresi says.

At Cisco Live this week in Las Vegas, executives and customers are talking up the abilities and benefits of a programmable network and what it means for end users.

“In the past we’ve had apps. And we’ve had the network. But the big change that’s happening now is the network is now programmable, from top to bottom, all the way down to the ASIC itself, up through the box and into DNA center,” says Susie Wee, CTO of Cisco’s DevNet Central, a training community for programmable network skills. DNA is Cisco’s Digital Network Architecture, which the company positions as the “command center” for programming the network. Wee says, “this fundamentally changes how applications can interact with the programmable network.”

Benefits of a programmable network

The ability to program network components is not new. Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), the company’s original software-defined networking platform, had some of these components. In 2014 Cisco launched DevNet, its developers' network that provides an array of training resources for programming network components and integrating applications – both third-party and custom ones - into Cisco network hardware. The launch last week of Cisco’s new intent-based networking platform continues this trend.

Use cases for this programmability are far ranging, says Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research and a Network World Blogger. “Not all networks are going to be programmed by developers,” he explains. “Part of this is about the ability for application developers to use resources from the network to improve their apps.”

Kerravala believes a whole new range of applications will be built that are network-centric. Applications can use data from the network, such as user identity, context of user behavior and location. He likens it to the introduction of the iPhone; when it was launched developers didn’t know how they would incorporate accelerometer readings into their applications, but now a whole class of apps use real-time tracking of motion. Developers will have to learn how they can use the network to help them build better apps and user experiences, Kerravala says. He provided some real-world examples of how this could be used:

  • A team needs a secure virtual network to host a video call, and instead of a network administrator spinning that up, the video application would automatically create the network conditions to fit the call.
  • A retailer could prioritize credit card transaction traffic over any other traffic in the store to ensure a timely customer experience.
  • If a traveler’s flight is cancelled, an application could see what meetings will be missed and automatically start a process to reschedule them.

There is even deeper functionality available. Kerravala says the use cases for end users to program the custom ASICs are fairly narrow. For example, a a large financial institution that has an IT staff with the necessary skills might find benefits in programming network path selection and customizing forwarding protocols in the ASIC.

Higher level programmable functionality could help bring application developers and network operators closer together, to create more of a devops-type mindset though. “There seems to be this friction between the app developers and the network. If there’s a problem with the app, is it the developer’s fault, or the network?” says Jose Borgarin, Chief Innovation Officer at Altus Consulting, a Cisco partner. “What we’re trying to do is help the network operators talk to the app developers and say, we now have these APIs that can help automate your stuff so I can make your app better.”

Kerravala believes the real value of programmability is the ability to automate tasks that used to be manual. By doing that, network operators can spend more of their time on strategic initiatives, instead of mundane networking tasks, and application developers get a network that is more fine-tuned to the needs of their specific applications.

Kerravala has advice for network administrators: “If you’re doing stuff that you wouldn’t be proud to put on your resume, don’t do it, automate it.”

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