Cisco gleaning enterprise network management techniques from service provider app

Corporate networks can be complicated, but often not as complicated as service provider networks. Cisco Systems is hoping to learn from the latter to provide for the former.

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Cisco's new software for service provider network management--Crosswork Network Automation--may hold valuable lessons for upcoming enterprise network management software as well.

Service provider networks can serve as testing grounds for their corporate cousins, officials at the San Jose, CA networking giant agreed, especially for multisite challenges such as wide-area replication and remote virtualization.

SEE: Quick glossary: Software-defined networking (Tech Pro Research)

"I think the principles of automation are very similar in different areas of the network... Automation is not really a product, it's a methodology of doing things," said Scott Miles, senior director of product management at Cisco. Due to complex networks and multi-cloud approaches, "We have a lot of customers that view themselves as providers, so from that perspective they're aligned."

The priority of Crosswork, and of Cisco's long-term network management vision for all customers, is to reduce the time between when software finds a problem and when it solves that problem. "That's the panacea, to take an application and guarantee it all the way through a provider's network. Over time we'll be stitching those together... You don't have to look very far to find outages due to human errors," Miles noted, such as the Amazon S3 outage a year ago infamously caused by an engineer misconfiguring part of the network.

What will it take for Cisco to reach that goal? "That's a common question we hear. This is a journey. I think the journey first is... to simplify network operations. And then it's about service awareness, network awareness, traffic awareness, understanding what's running in your network, and understanding when something goes wrong what's causing it. So that's the next part of the journey... with Crosswork we can offer some of that," Miles explained. "We're very early in this journey. The majority of customers have not approached these methodologies of treating the network as code."

"At its foundation the technology and principles are there. But obviously I'm sure there will be much to be learned from maturity and adoption," Miles continued. It could be mainstream within five years, he predicted. Already, "We have some customers today that have established they will no longer manually configure devices."

Crosswork is shipping in part now and will be shipped in entirety by the end of 2018, Miles said. Cisco's enterprise network management software, Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), entered its third generation in October 2017 and reached version 3.1 in December 2017, said Cisco's Mike Cohen, also a senior director of product management. That product's emphasis is software-defined network management based on data acquired by a component called the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller. More than 4,800 customers are using the ACI system, Cohen said.

Cisco is working on integrating ACI with popular enterprise clouds such as those from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. The company is also working on Crosswork-like concepts of automated network management extending beyond the data center physical walls, along with virtual network instances where physical switches aren't needed to administer remote sites.

Cohen declined to comment on how long it will be before that vision manifests in shipping products.

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By Evan Koblentz

Evan became a technology reporter during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers" in 2015 and is executive director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 501(c)3 non-p...