September 23, 2017

At its Cisco Live! event this week Cisco Systems signaled its intention to leverage a general-purpose compute engine that is now part of its next-generation switches to run both containers and virtual machines.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins told attendees that CPU will become an integral element of Cisco’s strategy to bridge applications running in both the cloud and at the edge. The core networking functions will continue to be processed employing ASICs developed by Cisco. But it will now be much simpler for developers to deploy either containers or virtual machines directly on top of Cisco networking equipment at the edge of the network, says Robbins.

Last week Cisco announced a 9000 series of Catalyst switches that are the first to include Intel x86 processors. This is not the first time the company has launched an initiative to drive application development and deployment on top of its networking gear. But it is the first time it is providing developers with an ability to take an application intended to be deployed on a container or as a virtual machine on top of that networking equipment.

In addition, Cisco has completely rewritten the Cisco IOS operating system that runs on those devices to provide a programmable environment that can be dynamically segmented. A core part of that multiyear effort has been the development of APIs that make those networking services more easily accessible to developers. Robbins says the goal is to make it easier for developers to extend applications from the cloud all the way out to the edge of the network. The company also this week announced it is making a raft of resources available to more than 45,000 developers to build applications for the edge of the network.

Of course, what mechanism will be used to achieve that goal is a subject of fierce debate. Containers have the advantage of making it easier to deploy applications anywhere. Virtual machines, however, are considered more secure, in addition to providing a more robust platform for deploying larger applications.

There’s obviously going to be fierce industrywide fight to provide the underlying platform for a new generation of applications at the edge of the network. Whether it’s an internet of things (IoT) application or virtual reality application optimized for forthcoming 5G networks, developers will be making extensive use of both containers and virtual machines at the edge. Less clear exactly is where those applications will run. Some will run on x86-based gateways attached to the network. But Cisco is betting that more latency-sensitive implementations of these applications are going to want to be deployed directly on a switch or a router.

Cisco today may not be viewed as major driver of container technologies, but it turns out the company has made significant investments across the category over the last several years. As the Cisco networking strategy evolves, IT organizations should expect to see the company further raise its container profile.

In the meantime, developers should have confidence in the fact that whatever format they choose to deploy their applications in, they won’t have to worry too much about what the specific device is being deployed at the edge of the network to run it.

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard is a seasoned IT journalist with over 25 years of experience. He also contributed to IT Business Edge, Channel Insider, Baseline and a variety of other IT titles. Previously, Vizard was the editorial director for Ziff-Davis Enterprise as well as Editor-in-Chief for CRN and InfoWorld.