Cisco ACI Components
In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, businesses constantly seek innovative solutions to streamline their network infrastructure. Enter Cisco ACI (Application Centric Infrastructure), a groundbreaking technology that promises to revolutionize how networks are designed, deployed, and managed. In this blog post, we will delve into the intricacies of Cisco ACI, its key features, and the benefits it brings to organizations of all sizes.
Cisco ACI is an advanced software-defined networking (SDN) solution that enables organizations to build and manage their networks in a more holistic and application-centric manner. By abstracting network policies and services from the underlying hardware, ACI provides a unified and programmable approach to network management, making it easier to adapt to changing business needs.
Highlights: Cisco ACI Components
- Hardware-based Underlay
In ACI, hardware-based underlay switching offers a significant advantage over software-only solutions due to specialized forwarding chips. Furthermore, thanks to Cisco’s ASIC development, ACI brings many advanced features, including security policy enforcement, microsegmentation, dynamic policy-based redirect (inserting external L4-L7 service devices into the data path), or detailed flow analytics—besides the vast performance and flexibility.
- The Legacy data center
The legacy data center topologies have a static infrastructure that specifies the constructs to form the logical topology. We must configure the VLAN, Layer 2/Layer 3 interfaces, and the protocols we need on the individual devices. Also, the process we used to define these constructs was done manually. We may have used Ansible playbooks to backup configuration or check for specific network parameters, but we generally operated with a statically defined process.
- Poor Resources
The main roadblock to application deployment was the physical bare-metal server. It was chunky and could only host one application due to the lack of process isolation. So, the network has one application per server to support and provide connectivity. This is the opposite of how ACI Cisco, also known as Cisco SDN ACI networks operate.
Related: For pre-information, you may find the following helpful:
Cisco SDN ACI
Back to Basics: Cisco ACI components
Key Features of Cisco ACI
a) Application-Centric Policy Model: Cisco ACI allows administrators to define and manage network policies based on application requirements rather than traditional network constructs. This approach simplifies policy enforcement and enhances application performance and security.
b) Automation and Orchestration: With Cisco ACI, network provisioning and configuration tasks are automated, reducing the risk of human error and accelerating deployment times. The centralized management framework enables seamless integration with orchestration tools, further streamlining network operations.
c) Scalability and Flexibility: ACI’s scalable architecture ensures that networks can grow and adapt to evolving business demands. Spine-leaf topology and VXLAN overlay technology allow for seamless expansion and simplify the deployment of multi-site and hybrid cloud environments.
Cisco Data Center
Cisco Data Center
Benefits of Cisco ACI
a) Enhanced Security: By providing granular microsegmentation and policy-based controls, Cisco ACI helps organizations strengthen their security posture. Malicious lateral movement within the network can be mitigated, reducing the attack surface and preventing data breaches.
b) Agility and Time-to-Market: The automation capabilities of Cisco ACI significantly reduce the time and effort required for network provisioning and changes. This agility enables organizations to respond faster to market demands, launch new services, and gain a competitive edge.
c) Simplified Operations: The centralized management and policy-driven approach of Cisco ACI simplify network operations, leading to improved efficiency and reduced operational costs. The intuitive user interface and comprehensive analytics provide administrators valuable insights, enabling proactive troubleshooting and optimization.
The Cisco ACI SDN Solution
Cisco ACI is a software-defined networking (SDN) solution that integrates with software and hardware. With the ACI, we can create software policies and use hardware for forwarding, an efficient and highly scalable approach offering better performance. The hardware for ACI is based on the Cisco Nexus 9000 platform product line. The APIC centralized policy controller drives the software, which stores all configuration and statistical data.
To build the ACI underlay, you must exclusively use the Nexus 9000 family of switches. You can choose from modular Nexus 9500 switches or fixed 1U to 2U Nexus 9300 models. Specific models and line cards are dedicated to the spine function in ACI fabric; others can be used as leaves, and some can be used for both purposes. You can combine various leaf switches inside one fabric without any limitations.
Spine and Leaf
For Nexus 9000 switches to be used as an ACI spine or leaf, they must be equipped with powerful Cisco CloudScale ASICs manufactured using 16-nm technology. The following figure shows the Cisco ACI based on the Nexus 9000 series. Cisco Nexus 9300 and 9500 platform switches support Cisco ACI. As a result, organizations can use them as the spine or leaf switches to fully utilize an automated, policy-based systems management approach.
- A key point: The birth of virtualization
Server virtualization helped to a degree where we could decouple workloads from the hardware, making the compute platform more scalable and agile. However, the server is not the main interconnection point for network traffic. So, we need to look at how we could virtualize the network infrastructure similar to the agility gained from server virtualization.
This is carried out with software-defined networking and overlays that could map network endpoints and be spun up and down as needed without human intervention. In addition, the SDN architecture includes an SDN controller and an SDN network that enables an entirely new data center topology.
ACI Cisco: Integrations
Routing Control Platform
Then came along Cisco SDN ACI, the ACI Cisco, which operates differently from the traditional data center with an application-centric infrastructure. The Cisco application-centric infrastructure achieves resource elasticity with automation through standard policies for data center operations and consistent policy management across multiple on-premises and cloud instances.
It uses a Software-Defined Networking (SDN) architecture like a routing control platform. The Cisco SDN ACI also provides a secure networking environment for Kubernetes. In addition, it integrates with various other solutions, such as Red Hat OpenShift networking.
What makes the Cisco ACI interesting is its several key integrations. I’m not talking about extending the data center with multi-pod and multi-site, for example, with AlgoSec, Cisco AppDynamics, and SD-WAN. AlgoSec enables secure application delivery and policy across hybrid network estates, while AppDynamic lives in a world of distributed systems Observability. SD-WAN enabled path performance per application with virtual WANs.
Cisco ACI Components: ACI Cisco and Multi-Pod
Cisco ACI Multi-Pod is part of the “Single APIC Cluster / Single Domain” family of solutions, as a single APIC cluster is deployed to manage all the interconnected ACI networks. These separate ACI networks are named “pods,” Each looks like a regular two-tier spine-leaf topology. The same APIC cluster can manage several pods, and to increase the resiliency of the solution, the various controller nodes that make up the cluster can be deployed across different pods.
Cisco ACI Components: ACI Cisco and AlgoSec
With AlgoSec integrated with the Cisco ACI, we can now provide automated security policy change management for multi-vendor devices and risk and compliance analysis. The AlgoSec Security Management Solution for Cisco ACI extends ACI’s policy-driven automation to secure various endpoints connected to the Cisco SDN ACI fabric.
These simplify the network security policy management across on-premises firewalls, SDNs, and cloud environments. It also provides the necessary visibility into the security posture of ACI, even across multi-cloud environments.
Cisco ACI Components: ACI Cisco and AppDynamics
Then, with AppDynamics, we are heading into Observability and controllability. Now, we can correlate app health and network for optimal performance, deep monitoring, and fast root-cause analysis across complex distributed systems with numbers of business transactions that need to be tracked. This will give your teams complete visibility of your entire technology stack, from your database servers to cloud-native and hybrid environments. In addition, AppDynamics works with agents that monitor application behavior in several ways. We will examine the types of agents and how they work later in this post.
Cisco ACI Components: ACI Cisco and SD-WAN
SD-WAN brings a software-defined approach to the WAN. These enable a virtual WAN architecture to leverage transport services such as MPLS, LTE, and broadband internet services. So, SD-WAN is not a new technology, and its benefits are well known, including improving application performance, increasing agility, and, in some cases, reducing costs.
The Cisco ACI and SD-WAN integration makes active-active data center design less risky to pursue than in the past. The following figures give a high-level overview of the Cisco ACI and SD-WAN integration. For pre-information generic to SD-WAN, go here: SD-WAN Tutorial
The Cisco SDN ACI and SD-WAN Integration
The Cisco SDN ACI with SD-WAN integration helps ensure an excellent application experience by defining application Service-Level Agreement (SLA) parameters. Cisco ACI releases 4.1(1i) and adds support for WAN SLA policies. This feature enables admins to apply pre-configured policies to specify the packet loss, jitter, and latency levels for the tenant traffic over the WAN.
When you apply a WAN SLA policy to the tenant traffic, the Cisco APIC sends the pre-configured policies to a vManage controller. The vManage controller, configured as an external device manager that provides SDWAN capability, chooses the best WAN link that meets the loss, jitter, and latency parameters specified in the SLA policy.
Cisco ACI Components: Openshift and Cisco SDN ACI
OpenShift Container Platform (formerly known as OpenShift Enterprise) or OCP is Red Hat’s offering for the on-premises private platform as a service (PaaS). OpenShift is based on the Origin open-source project and is a Kubernetes distribution, the defacto for container-based virtualization. The foundation of the OpenShift networking SDN is based on Kubernetes and, therefore, shares some of the same networking technology along with some enhancements, such as the OpenShift route construct.
Cisco ACI Components: Other data center integrations
Cisco SDN ACI has another integration with Cisco DNA Center/ISE that maps user identities consistently to endpoints and apps across the network, from campus to the data center. Cisco Software-Defined Access (SD-Access) provides policy-based automation from the edge to the data center and the cloud.
Cisco SD-Access provides automated end-to-end segmentation to separate user, device, and application traffic without redesigning the network. This integration will enable customers to use standard policies across Cisco SD-Access and Cisco ACI, simplifying customer policy management using Cisco technology in different operational domains.
Let us recap before we look at the ACI integrations in more detail.
The Cisco SDN ACI Design
Introduction to leaf and spine
The Cisco SDN ACI works with a Clos architecture, a fully meshed ACI network. Based on a spine leaf architecture. As a result, every Leaf is physically connected to every Spine, enabling traffic forwarding through non-blocking links. Physically, we have a set of Leaf switches creating a Leaf layer attached to the Spines in a full BIPARTITE graph.
This means that each Leaf is connected to each Spine, and each Spine is connected to each Leaf. The ACI uses a horizontally elongated Leaf and Spine architecture with one hop to every host in an entirely messed ACI fabric, offering good throughput and convergence needed for today’s applications.
The ACI fabric: Aggregate
A key point to note in the spine-and-leaf design is the fabric concept, which is like a stretch network. And one of the core ideas around a fabric is that they do not aggregate traffic. This does increase data center performance along with a non-blocking architecture. With the spine-leaf topology, we are spreading a fabric across multiple devices.
The result of the fabric is that each edge device has the total bandwidth of the fabric available to every other edge device. This is one big difference from traditional data center designs; we aggregate the traffic by either stacking multiple streams onto a single link or carrying the streams serially.
The issues with oversubscription
With the traditional 3-tier design, we aggregate everything at the core, leading to oversubscription ratios that degrade performance. With the ACI Leaf and Spine design, we spread the load across all devices with equidistant endpoints. Therefore, we can carry the streams parallel.
Horizontal scaling load balancing
Then, we have horizontal scaling load balancing. Load balancing with this topology uses multipathing to achieve the desired bandwidth between the nodes. Even though this forwarding paradigm can be based on Layer 2 forwarding ( bridging) or Layer 3 forwarding ( routing), the ACI leverages a routed approach to the Leaf and Spine design, and we have Equal Cost Multi-Path (ECMP) for both Layer 2 and Layer 3 traffic.
Highlighting the overlay and underlay
So you may be asking how we can have Layer 3 routed core and pass Layer 2 traffic. This is done using the overlay, which can map different traffic types to other overlays. So, we can have Layer 2 traffic mapped to an overlay over a routed core. ACI links between the Leaf and the Spine switches are L3 active-active links. Therefore we can intelligently load balance and traffic steer to avoid issues. And we don’t need to rely on STP to block links or involve STP to fix the topology.
When networks were first developed, there was no such thing as an application moving from one place to another while it was in use. So the original architects of IP, the communication protocol used between computers, used the IP address to mean both the identity of a device connected to the network and its location on the network. Today, in the modern data center, we need to be able to communicate with an application or application tier, no matter where it is.
One day, it may be in location A and the next in location B, but its identity, which we communicate with, is the same on both days. An overlay is when we encapsulate an application’s original message with the location to which it needs to be delivered before sending it through the network.
Once it arrives at its final destination, we unwrap it and deliver the original message as desired. The identities of the devices (applications) communicating are in the original message, and the locations are in the encapsulation, thus separating the location from the identity. This wrapping and unwrapping is done on a per-packet basis and, therefore, must be done quickly and efficiently.
Overlay and underlay components
The Cisco SDN ACI has a concept of overlay and underlay, forming a virtual overlay solution. The role of the underlay is to glue together devices so the overlay can work and be built on top. So, the overlay, which is VXLAN, runs on top of the underlay, which is IS-IS. In the ACI, the IS-IS protocol provides the routing for the overlay, which is why we can provide ECMP from the Leaf to the Spine nodes. The routed underlay provides an ECMP network where all leaves can access Spine and have the same cost links.
Let’s take a simple example to illustrate how this is done. Imagine that application App-A wants to send a packet to App-B. App-A is located on a server attached to switch S1, and App-B is initially on switch S2. When App-A creates the message, it will put App-B as the destination and send it to the network; when the message is received at the edge of the network, whether a virtual edge in a hypervisor or a physical edge in a switch, the network will look up the location of App-B in a “mapping” database and see that it is attached to switch S2.
It will then put the address of S2 on the outside of the original message. So, we now have a new message addressed to switch S2. The network will forward this new message to S2 using traditional networking mechanisms. Note that the location of S2 is very static, i.e., it does not move, so using traditional mechanisms works just fine.
Upon receiving the new message, S2 will remove the outer address and thus recover the original message. Since App-B is directly connected to S2, it can easily forward the message to App-B. App-A never had to know where App-B was located,, nor did the network’s core. Only the edge of the network, specifically the mapping database, had to know the location of App-B. The rest of the network only had to see the location of switch S2, which does not change.
Let’s now assume App-B moves to a new location switch S3. Now, when App-A sends a message to App-B, it does the same thing it did before, i.e., it addresses the message to App-B and gives the packet to the network. The network then looks up the location of App-B and finds that it is now attached to switch S3. So it puts S3’s address on the message and forwards it accordingly. At S3, the message is received, the outer address removed, and the original message delivered as desired.
The movement of App-B was not tracked by App-A at all. The address of App-B identified App-B, while the address of the switch, S2 or S3, identified App-B’s location. App-A can communicate freely with App-B no matter where App-B is located, allowing the system administrator to place App-B in any location and move it as desired, thus achieving the flexibility needed in the data center.
Multicast Distribution Tree (MDT)
We have a Multicast Distribution Tree MDT tree on top that is used to forward multi-destination traffic without having loops. The Multicast distribution tree is dynamically built to send flood traffic for specific protocols. Again, it does this without creating loops in the overlay network. The tunnels created for the endpoints to communicate will have tunnel endpoints. The tunnel endpoints are known as the VTEP. The VTEP addresses are assigned to each Leaf switch from a pool that you specify in the ACI startup and discovery process.
Normalize the transports
The use of VXLAN tunnels in the ACI fabric is used so that we can normalize the transports in the ACI network. Therefore, traffic between endpoints can be delivered using the VXLAN tunnel, resulting in any transport network regardless of the device connecting to the fabric.
Building the VXLAN tunnels
So, using VXLAN in the overlay enables any network, and you don’t need to configure anything special on the endpoints for this to happen. The endpoints that connect to the ACI fabric do not need special software or hardware. The endpoints send regular packets to the leaf nodes they are connected to directly or indirectly. As endpoints come online, they send traffic to reach a destination.
Bridge domain and VRF
Therefore, the Cisco SDN ACI under the hood will automatically start to build the VXLAN overlay network for you. The VXLAN network is based on the Bridge Domain (BD), or VRF ACI constructs deployed to the leaf switches. The Bridge Domain is for Layer 2, and the VRF is for Layer 3. So, as devices come online and send traffic to each other, the overlay will grow in reachability in the Bridge Domain or the VRF.
Routing for endpoints
Routing within each tenant, VRF is based on host routing for endpoints directly connected to the Cisco ACI fabric. For IPv4, the host routing is based on the /32, giving the ACI a very accurate picture of the endpoints. Therefore, we have exact routing in the ACI.
In conjunction, we have a COOP database that runs on the Spines that offers remarkably optimized fabric in terms of knowing where all the endpoints are located. To facilitate this, every node in the fabric has a TEP address, and we have different types of TEPs depending on the role of the device. The Spine and the Leaf will have TEP addresses but will differ from each other.
The VTEP and PTEP
The Leaf’s nodes are the Virtual Tunnel Endpoints (VTEP). In ACI, this is known as PTEP, the physical tunnel endpoints. These PTEP addresses represent the “WHERE” in the ACI fabric that an endpoint lives in.
Cisco ACI uses a dedicated VRF and a subinterface of the uplinks from the Leaf to the Spines as the infrastructure to carry VXLAN traffic. In Cisco ACI terminology, the transport infrastructure for VXLAN traffic is known as Overlay-1, which is part of the tenant “infra.”
The Spine TEP
The Spines also have a PTEP and an additional proxy TEP. This is used for forwarding lookups into the mapping database. The Spines have a global view of where everything is, which is held in the COOP database synchronized across all Spine nodes. All of this is done automatically for you.
For this to work, the Spines have an Anycast IP address known as the Proxy TEP. The Leaf can use this address if they do not know where an endpoint is, so they ask the Spine for any unknown endpoints, and then the Spine checks the COOP database. This brings many benefits to the ACI solution, especially for traffic optimizations and reducing flooded traffic in the ACI. Now, we have an optimized fabric for better performance.
The ACI optimizations
Mouse and elephant flows
This provides better performance for load balancing different flows. For example, in most data centers, we have latency-sensitive flows, known as mouse flows, and long-lived bandwidth-intensive flows, known as elephant flows.
The ACI has more precisely load-balanced traffic using algorithms that optimize mouse and elephant flows and distribute traffic based on flow lets: flow let load-balancing. Within a Leaf, Spine latency is low and consistent from port to port. The max latency of a packet from one port to another in the architecture is the same regardless of the network size. So you can scale the network without degrading performance. Scaling is often done on a POD-by-POD basis. For more extensive networks, each POD would be its Leaf and Spine network.
ARP optimizations: Anycast gateways
The ACI comes by default with a lot of traffic optimizations. Firstly, instead of using an ARP and broadcasting across the network, that can hamper performance. The Leaf can assume that the Spine will know where the destination is ( and it does via the COOP database ), so there is no need to broadcast to everyone to find a destination.
If the Spine knows where the endpoint is, it will forward it to the other Leaf. If not, it will drop the traffic.
Fabric anycast addressing
This again adds performance benefits to the ACI solution as the table sizes on the Leaf switches can be kept smaller than they would if they needed to know where all the destinations were, even if they were not or never needed to communicate with them. On the Leaf, we have an Anycast address too.
These fabric anycast addresses are available for Layer 3 interfaces. On the Leaf ToR, we can establish an SVI that uses the same MAC address on every ToR; therefore, when an endpoint needs to route to a ToR. It doesn’t matter which ToR you use. The Anycast Address is spread across all ToR leaf switches.
Now we have predictable latency to the first hop, and you will use the local route VRF table within that ToR instead of traversing the fabric to a different ToR. This is the Pervasive Gateway feature that is used on all Leaf switches. The Cisco ACI has many advanced networking features, but the pervasive gateway is my favorite. It does take away all the configuration mess we had in the past.
The Cisco SDN ACI Integrations
OpenShift and Cisco ACI
- OpenSwitch virtual network
OpenShift does this with an SDN layer and enhances Kubernetes networking to have a virtual network across all the nodes and is created with the Open Switch standard. For OpenShift SDN, this pod network is established and maintained by the OpenShift SDN, configuring an overlay network using a virtual switch called the OVS bridge, forming an OVS network that gets programmed with several OVS rules. The OVS is a popular open-source solution for virtual switching.
OpenShift SDN plugin
We mentioned that you could tailor the virtual network topology to suit your networking requirements, which can be determined by the OpenShift SDN plugin and the SDN model you select. With the default OpenShift SDN, there are several modes available. This level of SDN mode you choose is concerned with managing connectivity between applications and providing external access to them. Some modes are more fine-grained than others. The Cisco ACI plugins offer the most granular.
Integrating ACI and OpenShift platform
The Cisco ACI CNI plugin for the OpenShift Container Platform provides a single, programmable network infrastructure, enterprise-grade security, and flexible micro-segmentation possibilities. The APIC can provide all networking needs for the workloads in the cluster. Kubernetes workloads become fabric endpoints, like Virtual Machines or Bare Metal endpoints.
The Cisco ACI CNI plugin extends the ACI fabric capabilities to OpenShift clusters to provide IP Address Management, networking, load balancing, and security functions for OpenShift workloads. In addition, the Cisco ACI CNI plugin connects all OpenShift Pods to the integrated VXLAN overlay provided by Cisco ACI.
The Cisco SDN ACI and AppDynamics
So, you have multiple steps or services for an application to work. These services may include logging in and searching to add something to a shopping cart. These services will invoke various applications, web services, third-party APIs, and databases, known as business transactions.
The user’s critical path
A business transaction is the essential user interaction with the system and is the customer’s critical path. Therefore, business transactions are the things you care about. If they start to go, it will cause your system to degrade. So, you need ways to discover your business transactions and determine if there are any deviations from baselines. This should also be done automated, as it’s nearly impossible to discover baseline and business transitions in deep systems using the manual approach.
So, how do you discover all these business transactions?
AppDynamics automatically discovers business transactions and builds an application topology map of how the traffic flows. A topology map can view usage patterns and hidden flows, acting as a perfect feature for an Observability platform.
AppDynamics will discover the topology for all of your application components. All of this is done automatically for you. It can then build a performance baseline by capturing metrics and traffic patterns. This allows you to highlight issues when services and components are slower than usual.
AppDynamics uses agents to collect all the information it needs. The agent monitors and records the calls that are made to a service. This is from the entry point and follows executions along its path through the call stack.
Types of Agents for Infrastructure Visibility
If the agent is installed on all critical parts, you can get information about that specific instance. This can help you build a global picture. So we have an Application Agent, Network Agent, and Machine Agent for Server visibility and Hardware/OS.
- App Agent: This agent will monitor apps and app servers, and example metrics will be Slow transitions, stalled transactions, response times, wait time, block times, and errors.
- Network Agent: This agent monitors the network packets, TCP connection, and TCP socket. Example metrics include performance impact Events, Packet loss, and retransmissions, RTT for data transfers, TCP window size, and connection setup/teardown.
- Machine Agent Server Visibility: This agent monitors the number of processes, services, caching, swapping, paging, and querying. Example Metrics include hardware/software interrupts, virtual memory/swapping, process faults, and CPU/DISK/Memory utilization by the process.
- Machine Agent: Hardware/OS – disks, volumes, partitions, memory, CPU. Example metrics: CPU busy time, MEM utilization, and pieces file.
Automatic establishment of the baseline
A baseline is essential, a critical step in your monitoring strategy. Doing this manual is hard, if not impossible, with complex applications. Having this automatically done for you is much better. You must automatically establish the baseline and alert yourself about deviations from the baseline. This will help you pinpoint the issue faster and resolve issues before the problem can be affected. Platforms such as AppDynamics can help you here. Any malicious activity can be seen from deviations from the security baseline and performance issues from the network baseline.
Conclusion: In conclusion, Cisco ACI represents a paradigm shift in network infrastructure, empowering organizations to embrace the digital transformation era confidently. Its application-centric focus, automation capabilities, and scalability make it a compelling choice for businesses seeking to build agile, secure, and operationally efficient networks. By adopting Cisco ACI, organizations can unlock new possibilities and position themselves for success in the digital age.