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VMware NSX and Cisco ACI: Two tacks to network virtualization

Virtualization has moved into the networking realm with competing offerings from VMware and Cisco that differ in their approach.

What is network virtualization? How do VMware NSX and Cisco ACI handle network virtualization?

The traditional physical network model relies on dedicated devices like switches and routers, along with a variety of services like access control, firewalls and other security, load balancing, and quality of service tools that are frequently implemented as proprietary devices. Vendors such as VMware and Cisco have developed network virtualization offerings to bring flexibility and manageability to enterprise networks in an attempt to change how they are protected and managed.

In the simplest sense, network virtualization from VMware NSX extends the existing hypervisor to reproduce almost all of the network's Layer 2 through Layer 7 components as software components on each virtualized server. Tools such as NSX Service Composer can then logically connect these virtual network components to form independent logical networks that are isolated from other networks. Once established, virtual networks can be changed or deleted as needed with no changes to physical hardware, and no changes are needed in virtual machine provisioning or operation.

VMware NSX is a software-based approach to network virtualization, which requires only an available physical IP network to work with. Cisco's application-centric infrastructure (ACI) is very different. It takes  a more integrated and proprietary approach. Cisco ACI uses an Application Policy Infrastructure Controller and a fabric of Cisco switches. Cisco ACI defines networking behavior based on the communication, performance and security needs of each enterprise application -- not network topologies. Once an application's network profile is established, the resulting logical network and policies are translated to the Cisco network switches.

In effect, Cisco defines a virtual network from the application's perspective while VMware defines a virtual network using simulated open systems interconnect layer components.

This was last published in August 2014

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