Cisco ACI

ACI Cisco


Cisco ACI





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:

  1. Data Center Security 
  2. VMware NSX


Cisco SDN ACI 

Key ACI Cisco Discussion points:

  • Birth of virtualization and SDN.

  • Cisco ACI integrations.

  • ACI design and components.

  • VXLAN networking and ECMP.

  • Focus on ACI and SD-WAN.


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 ACI

Key Features

  • Application-Centric Policy Model

  • Automation and Orchestration

  • Scalability and Flexibility

  • Built-in Security 

Cisco Data Center

Cisco ACI 

Key Advantages

  • Enhanced Security

  • Agility and Time-to-Market

  • Simplified Operations

  • Open software flexibility for DevOps teams.

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.

Nexus Family

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. 

Cisco ACI Components
Diagram: Cisco ACI Components. Source is Cisco


  • 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.

server virtualization
Diagram: The need for virtualization and software-defined networking.


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.

Integration Options

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.

ACI Multi-Pod
Diagram: Cisco ACI Multi-Pod. Source Cisco.


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

SD WAN integration
Diagram: Cisco ACI and SD-WAN integration


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.

Cisco ACI
Diagram: Cisco ACI: Improving application performance.


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.

SDN data center
Diagram: Cisco ACI fabric checking.

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

Mapping Traffic

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.

Overlay Encapsulation

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. 

ACI overlay
Diagram: Overlay. Source Cisco



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. 


Horizontal scaling load balancing
Diagram: Horizontal scaling load balancing.

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.

COOP database
Diagram: COOP database



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.


Cisco ACI
Diagram: Routing control platform.


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. 

Pervasive gateway

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
Diagram: OpenShift SDN.


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

AppDynamis overview

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.

Cisco AppDynamics
Diagram: Cisco AppDynamics.


AppDynamic topology

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.


Cisco ACI


Cisco ACI

Cisco ACI | ACI Infrastructure


Cisco ACI


ACI Cisco and ACI Network

The ACI Cisco stands for Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure and is based on a spine leaf architecture. It is a software-defined networking solution that provides a holistic approach to network management. ACI offers a centralized policy-driven framework for managing and automating network infrastructure.

One of the critical features of ACI Cisco is its ability to create a virtualized network environment using the Application Network Profiles (ANPs) concept. ANPs allow administrators to define and manage network policies based on the requirements of specific applications. This simplifies the deployment and management of applications, as network policies can be easily applied across the entire infrastructure.

ACI Cisco Highlights:

  • Example: ACI Networks

ACI Networks also introduces the concept of the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), which acts as the central point of control for the network. The APIC allows administrators to define and enforce network policies, monitor performance, and troubleshoot issues.

In addition to network virtualization and policy management, ACI Cisco offers a range of other features. These include integrated security, intelligent workload placement, and seamless integration with other Cisco products and technologies.

  • COOP Protocol in ACI

The spine proxy receives mapping information (location and identity) via the Council of Oracle Protocol (COOP). Using Zero Message Queue (ZMQ), leaf switches forward endpoint address information to spine switches. As part of COOP, the spine nodes maintain a consistent copy of the endpoint address and location information and maintain the distributed hash table (DHT) database for mapping endpoint identity to location.

  • Micro-segmentation

Integrated security is achieved through micro-segmentation, which allows administrators to define fine-grained security policies at the application level. This helps to prevent the lateral movement of threats within the network and provides better protection against attacks.

Intelligent workload placement ensures that applications are placed in the most appropriate locations within the network based on their specific requirements. This improves application performance and resource utilization.


Related: For pre-information, you may find the following helpful:

  1. Data Center Security
  2. Data Center Topologies
  3. Dropped Packet Test
  4. DMVPN
  5. Stateful Inspection Firewall
  6. Cisco ACI Components


ACI Network

Key Cisco ACI Blog Discussion Points:

  • Operates over a Leaf and Spine design.

  • New ACI network components e.g Bridge Domain and Contracts.

  • Intelligence at the edge.

  • Overcomes many DC challenges.

  • VXLAN transport network.

  • Extend with Mutli Pod and Multi Site.


  • A key point – Video 1: Product demonstration on ACI Cisco

The following product demonstration will address fabric deployment and provisioning in the ACI Cisco. All of this is done automatically for you, and we will check to ensure this has been done for you. The Cisco ACI architecture operates over a leaf and spine architecture.

We will confirm this by checking the individual ports on each ACI node, LLD status, and IS-IS adjacency status while checking the COOP protocol in ACI. We will also examine the traditional DC design based on the 3-tier architecture with many drawbacks, forcing us to move to a leaf and spine data center design.



ACI Components

Key components that make up the ACI Cisco architecture. By understanding these components, network administrators and IT professionals can harness the power of ACI to optimize their data center operations.

Cisco ACI Components

Main ACI Components

Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) 

  • Application Policy Infrastructure Controller

  • Spine Switches

  • Leaf Switches

  • Application Network Profiles

  • Endpoint Groups 

1. Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC):

The cornerstone of the Cisco ACI architecture is the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC). APIC is the central management and policy engine for the entire ACI fabric. It provides a single point of control, enabling administrators to define and enforce policies that govern the behavior of applications and services within the data center. APIC offers a user-friendly interface for policy configuration, monitoring, and troubleshooting, making it an essential component for managing the ACI fabric.

2. Spine Switches:

Spine switches form the backbone of the ACI fabric. These high-performance switches provide connectivity between leaf switches and facilitate east-west traffic within the fabric. Spine switches operate at Layer 3 and use routing protocols to efficiently distribute traffic across the fabric. With the ability to handle massive amounts of data, spine switches ensure high-speed connectivity and optimal performance in the ACI environment.

3. Leaf Switches:

Leaf switches act as the access layer switches in the ACI fabric. They connect directly to the endpoints, such as servers, storage devices, and other network devices, and serve as the entry and exit points for traffic entering and leaving the fabric. Leaf switches provide Layer 2 connectivity for endpoint devices and Layer 3 connectivity for communication between endpoints within the fabric. They also play a crucial role in implementing policy enforcement and forwarding traffic based on predefined policies.

Lab guide displaying routed core.

Example: OSPF Routed Core

With a leaf and spine, we can have a routed core. So, we gain the benefits of running a routing protocol, such as OSPF, all the way down to the access layer. This has many benefits, such as full use of links. The guide below has three routers: two leaves and two spines. OSPF is the routing protocol with Area 0; we are not running STP.

Therefore, we can have Layer 3 routing for both spines to reach the destinations on Leaf B. I have a loopback configured on Leaf B of Each leaf has an OSPF neighbor relationship to each spine with an OSPF network type of Broadcast. Notice the command: Show IP route on Leaf A.


We initially only had one path via Spine B, i.e., the shortest path based on OSPF cost. Once I made the OSPF costs the same for the entire path  ( Cost of 4, routing metric of 4 ), we installed 2 paths in the routing table and now can rely on the fast convergence of OSPF for link failure detection and recovery.

We will expand this with one of the following lab guides in this blog with VXLAN and create a layer 2 overlay. Remember that ACI does not have OSPF and uses IS-IS; it also has a particular configuration for VXLAN, and much of the CLI complexity is abstracted. However, the focus of these lab guides is on illustration and learning.

Layer 3 routed core
Diagram: Layer 3 routed core


Lab Guide on IS-IS

Example: IS-IS

Cisco ACI under the covers runs ISIS. The ISIS routing protocol is an Interior Gateway Protocol (IGP) that enables routers within a network to exchange routing information and make informed decisions on the best path to forward packets. It operates at the OSI model’s Layer 2 (Data Link Layer) and Layer 3 (Network Layer).

ISIS organizes routers into logical groups called areas, simplifying network management and improving scalability. It allows for hierarchical routing, reducing the overhead of exchanging routing information across large networks.


Below, we have four routers. R1 and R2 are in area 12, and R3 and R4 are in area 34. R1 and R3 are intra-area routers so they will be configured as level 1 routers. R2 and R4 form the backbone so these routers will be configured as levels 1-2.

Network administrators need to configure ISIS parameters on each participating router to implement ISIS. These parameters include the router’s ISIS system ID, area assignments, and interface settings. ISIS uses the reliable transport protocol (RTP) to exchange routing information between routers.

Routing Protocol
Diagram: Routing Protocol. ISIS.


4. Application Network Profiles (ANPs):

Application Network Profiles (ANPs) are a key Cisco ACI policy model component. ANPs define the policies and configurations required for specific applications or application groups. ANPs encapsulate all the necessary information, including network connectivity, quality of service (QoS) requirements, security policies, and service chaining.

By associating endpoints with ANPs, administrators can easily manage and enforce consistent policies across the ACI fabric, simplifying application deployment and ensuring compliance.

5. Endpoint Groups (EPGs):

Endpoint Groups (EPGs) are logical containers that group endpoints with similar network requirements. EPGs provide a way to define and enforce policies at a granular level—endpoints within an EPG share standard policies, such as security, QoS, and network connectivity.

This grouping allows administrators to apply policies consistently to specific endpoints, regardless of their physical location within the fabric. EPGs enable seamless application mobility and simplify policy enforcement within the ACI environment.

Specific ACI Cisco architecture.

In some of the lab guides we have in this blog post. We are using the following hardware from a rack rental from Cloudmylabs. Remember that the ACI Fabric is built on the Nexus 9000 Product Family.

The Cisco Nexus 9000 Series Switches are designed to meet the increasing demands of modern networks. With high-performance capabilities, these switches deliver exceptional speeds and low latency, ensuring smooth and uninterrupted data flow. They support high-density 10/25/40/100 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, allowing businesses to scale and adapt to growing network requirements.

Enhanced Security

The Cisco Nexus 9000 Series Switches offer comprehensive security features to protect networks from evolving threats. They leverage Cisco TrustSec technology, which provides secure access control, segmentation, and policy enforcement. With integrated security features, businesses can mitigate risks and safeguard critical data, ensuring peace of mind.

Application Performance Optimization:

To meet the demands of modern applications, the Cisco Nexus 9000 Series Switches are equipped with advanced features that optimize application performance. These switches support Cisco Tetration Analytics, which provides deep insights into application behavior, enabling businesses to enhance performance, troubleshoot issues, and improve efficiency.

Diagram: The source is Cloudmylabs.

Cisco ACI Simulator

Below is a screenshot from Cisco ACI similar. At the start, you will be asked for fabric details. Remember that once you set the out-of-band management address for the API, you need to change the port group settings on the ESXi VM network. If you don’t change “Promiscuous mode, MAC address changes, and Forged Transmits,” you cannot access the UI from your desktop.

ACI fabric Details
Diagram: Cisco ACI fabric Details


Back to basics: Leaf and spine design

Leaf and Spine

Leaf and spine architecture is a network design methodology commonly used in data centers. It provides a scalable and resilient infrastructure that can handle the increasing demands of modern applications and services. The term “leaf and spine” refers to the physical and logical structure of the network.

In leaf and spine architecture, the network is divided into two main layers: the leaf and spine layers. The leaf layer consists of leaf switches connected to the servers or endpoints in the data center. These leaf switches act as the access points for the servers, providing high-bandwidth connectivity and low-latency communication.

The spine layer, on the other hand, consists of spine switches that connect the leaf switches. The spine switches provide high-speed and non-blocking interconnectivity between the leaf switches, forming a fully connected fabric. This allows for efficient and predictable traffic patterns, as any leaf switch can communicate directly with any other leaf switch through the spine layer.

 Lab guide on ACI Cisco with leaf and spine.

The following lab guide has a leaf and spine ACI design that includes 2 leaf switches acting as the leaf layer where the workloads connect. Then, we have a spine connected to the leaf. When the ACI hardware installation is done, all Spines and Leafs are linked and powered up. Once the basic configuration of APIC is completed, the Fabric discovery process starts working.

Note: IFM process

In the discovery process, ACI uses the Intra-Fabric Messaging (IFM) process in which APIC and nodes exchange heartbeat messages.

The process used by the APIC to push policy to the fabric leaf nodes is called the IFM Process. ACI Fabric discovery is completed in three stages. The leaf node directly connected to the APIC is discovered in the first stage. The second discovery stage brings in the spines connected to that initial leaf where APIC was connected. The third stage involves discovering the cluster’s other leaf nodes and APICs.

The fabric membership diagram below shows the inventory, including serial number, Pod, Node ID, Model, Role, Fabric IP, and Status. Cisco ACI consists of the following hardware components: APIC Controller Spine Switches and Leaf Switches.

ACI fabric discovery
Diagram: ACI fabric discovery


Cisco ACI uses an overlay based on VXLAN to virtualize physical infrastructure. Like most overlays, this overlay requires the data path at the network’s edge to map from the tenant end-point address in the packet, otherwise referred to as its identifier, to the endpoint’s location, also known as its locator. This mapping occurs in a tunnel endpoint (TEP) function called VXLAN (VTEP).

The VTEP addresses are displayed in the INFRASTRUCTURE IP column. The TEP address pool has been configured on the Cisco APIC using the initial setup dialog. The APIC assigns the TEP addresses to the fabric switches via DHCP, so the infrastructure IP addresses in your fabric will differ from the figure.

This configuration is perfectly valid for a Lab but not good for a production environment. The minimum physical fabric hardware for a production environment includes two spines, two leaves, and three APICs.In addition to discovering and configuring the Fabric and applying the Tenant design, the following functionality can be configured:

  • Routing at Layer 3

  • Connecting a legacy network at layer 2

  • Virtual Port Channels at Layer 2

A note about Border Leafs: ACI fabrics often use this designation along with “Compute Leafs” and “Storage Leafs.” Border Leaf is merely a convention for identifying the leaf pair that hosts all external connectivity external to the fabric (Border Leaf) or the leaf pair that hosts host connectivity (Compute Leaf).

Note: The Link Layer Discovery Protocol (LLDP) is responsible for discovering directly adjacent neighbors. When run between the Cisco APIC and a leaf switch, it precedes three other processes: Tunnel endpoint (TEP) IP address assignment, node software upgrade (if necessary), and the intra-fabric messaging (IFM) process, which the Cisco APIC uses to push policy to the leaves.

aci Cisco LLDP

Leaf and Spine: Traffic flows

The leaf and spine network topology is suitable for east-to-west network traffic and comprises leaf switches to which the workloads connect and spine switches to which the leaf switches connect. The spines have a simple role to play and are geared around performance, while all the intelligence is distributed to the edge of the network where the leaf layers sit.

This allows engineers to move away from managing individual devices and manage the data center architecture more efficiently with policy. In this model, the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) controllers can correlate information from the entire fabric.

Understanding Leaf and Spine Traffic Flow

In a leaf and spine architecture, traffic flow follows a structured path. When a device connected to a leaf switch wants to communicate with another device, the traffic is routed through the spine switch to the destination leaf switch. This approach minimizes the hops required for data transmission and reduces latency. Additionally, traffic can be evenly distributed since every leaf switch is connected to every spine switch, preventing congestion and bottlenecks.


Lab guide on ACI Cisco with leaf and spine.

In the following lab guide, we continue to verify the ACI leaf and spine.  We can run the command Acidiag fnvread, a diagnostics tool to check the ACI fabric. It would also be recommended to check the LLDP and ISIS adjacencies. With a leaf and spine design, the leaf layer does not connect, and we can see this with the LLDP and ISIS adjacency information below.

ACI leaf and spine
Diagram: ACI leaf and spine

Advantages of Leaf and Spine Traffic Flow:

  • Improved Performance: Leaf and spine architecture ensures optimal performance by evenly distributing traffic and minimizing latency. This results in faster data transmission and improved response times for end-users.
  • Scalability: The leaf and spine architecture allows for easy scalability as additional leaf switches can be added without disrupting the existing network. This flexibility enables networks to adapt to changing requirements and handle increasing traffic loads.
  • High Availability: Providing multiple paths for traffic, leaf, and spine architecture ensures redundancy and fault tolerance. If one link fails, traffic can be rerouted through alternative paths, minimizing downtime and ensuring uninterrupted connectivity.

leaf and spine

Leaf and Spine Switch Functions

Based on a two-tier (spine and leaf switches) or three-tier (spine switch, tier-1 leaf switch, and tier-2 leaf switch) architecture, Cisco ACI switches provide the following functions:

Leaf switches: 

What are Leaf Switches?

Leaf switches connect between end devices, servers, and the network fabric. They are typically deployed in leaf-spine network architecture, connecting directly to the spine switches. Leaf switches provide high-speed, low-latency connectivity to end devices within a data center network.

Functionalities of Leaf Switches:

1. Aggregation: Leaf switches aggregate traffic from multiple servers and sends it to the spine switches for further distribution. This aggregation helps reduce the network’s complexity and enables efficient traffic flow.

2. High-density Port Connectivity: Leaf switches are designed to provide a high-density port connectivity environment, allowing multiple devices to connect simultaneously. This is crucial in data centers where numerous servers and devices must be interconnected.

These devices have ports connected to classic Ethernet devices, such as servers, firewalls, and routers. In addition, these leaf switches provide the VXLAN Tunnel Endpoint (VTEP) function at the edge of the fabric. In Cisco ACI terminology, IP addresses representing leaf switch VTEPs are called Physical Tunnel Endpoints (PTEPs). The leaf switches route or bridge tenant packets and applies network policies.

Spine switches

What are Spine Switches?

Spine switches, also known as spine or core switches, are high-performance switches that form the backbone of a network. They play a vital role in data centers and large enterprise networks, facilitating the seamless data flow between various leaf switches.

These devices interconnect leaf switches. They can also connect Cisco ACI pods to IP networks or WAN devices to build a Cisco ACI Multi-Pod fabric. In addition to the mapping entries between endpoints and VTEPs, spine switches also store proxy entries between endpoints and VTEPs. Leaf switches are connected to spine switches within a pod, and spine switches are connected to leaf switches.

No direct connection between tier-1 leaf switches, tier-2 leaf switches, or spine switches is allowed. If you incorrectly cable spine switches to each other or leaf switches in the same tier to each other, the interfaces will be disabled.

Cisco ACI Fabric
Diagram: Cisco ACI Fabric. Source Cisco Live.


  • A key point – Video 2: Demonstration on a leaf and spine data center design

The following tutorial will examine the leaf and spine data center architecture. We know this design is a considerable step from traditional DC design. As a use case, we will focus on how Cisco has adopted the leaf and spine design with its Cisco ACI product. We will address the components and how they form the Cisco ACI fabric.



BGP Route Reflection

Under the cover, Cisco ACI works with BGP Route-Reflection. BGP Route Reflection creates a hierarchy of routers within the ACI fabric. At the top of the hierarchy is a Route-Reflector (RR), a central point for collecting routing information from other routers within the fabric. The RR then reflects this information to other routers, ensuring that every router in the network has a complete view of the routing table.

The ACI uses MP-BGP protocol to distribute external Network subnets or prefixes inside the ACI fabric. To create an MP-BGP route reflector, we must select two Spines acting as Route Reflectors and make an iBGP Neighbourship to all other Leafs.


BGP Route Reflection
Diagram: BGP Route Reflection

The ACI Cisco Architecture

The ACI Cisco operates with several standard ACI building blocks. These include Endpoint Groups (EPGs) that are used to classify and group similar workloads; then, we have the Bridge Domains (BD), VRFs, Contract constructs, COOP protocol in ACI, and micro-segmentation. With micro-segmentation in the ACI, you can get granular policy enforcement right the workload anywhere in the network.

Unlike in the traditional network design, you don’t need to place certain workloads in specific VLANs or, in some cases, physical locations. The ACI can incorporate devices separate from the ACI, such as a firewall, load balancer, or an IPS/IDS, for additional security mechanisms. This enables the service insertion of Layer 4 to Layer 7 services dynamically. Here we have a lot of flexibility with the redirect option and service graphs.


Cisco ACI 

ACI network

Automation and consitency

Multi-cloud acceleration

Zero-trust security protectomn

Centralised management

Multi-site capabilities 


The ACI Infrastructure

The Cisco ACI architecture is optimized to learn endpoints dynamically with its dynamic endpoint learning functionality. So, we have endpoint learning in the data plane. Therefore, the other devices learn of the endpoints connected to that local leaf switch; the spines have a mapping database that saves many resources on the spine and can optimize the data traffic forwarding. So you don’t need to flood traffic any more. If you want, you can turn off flooding in the ACI fabric. Then, we have an overlay network.

As you know, the ACI network has both an overlay and a physical underlay; this would be a virtual underlay in the case of Cisco Cloud ACI. The ACI uses VXLAN, the overlay protocol that rides on top of a simple leaf and spine topology, with standards-based protocols such as IS-IS and BGP for route propagation. 


  • A key point: Video on BGP in the Data Center

In this whiteboard session, we will address the basics of BGP. A network exists specifically to serve the connectivity requirements of applications, and these applications are to serve business needs. So these applications must run on stable networks, and stable networks are built from stable routing protocols.

Routing Protocols are a set of predefined rules used by the routers that interconnect your network to maintain the communication between the source and the destination. These routing protocols help to find the routes between two nodes on the computer network.



ACI Cisco and endpoints

In a traditional network, three tables are used to maintain the network addresses of external devices: a MAC address table for Layer 2 forwarding, a Routing Information Base (RIB) for Layer 3 forwarding, and an ARP table for the combination of IP addresses and MAC addresses. Cisco ACI, however, maintains this information differently, as shown below.

ACI Endpoint learning
Diagram: Endpoint Learning. Source


What is ACI Endpoint Learning?

ACI endpoint learning refers to discovering and monitoring the network endpoints within an ACI fabric. Endpoints include devices, virtual machines, physical servers, users, and applications. Network administrators can make informed decisions regarding network policies, security, and traffic optimization by gaining insights into these endpoints’ location, characteristics, and behavior.

How Does ACI Endpoint Learning Work?

ACI fabric leverages a distributed, controller-based architecture to facilitate endpoint learning. When an endpoint is connected to the fabric, ACI utilizes a variety of mechanisms to gather information about it. These mechanisms include Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) snooping, Link Layer Discovery Protocol (LLDP), and even integration with hypervisor-based systems.

Once an endpoint is detected, ACI Fabric builds a comprehensive endpoint database called the Endpoint Group (EPG). This database contains vital information such as MAC addresses, IP addresses, VLANs, and associated policies. By continuously monitoring and updating this database, ACI ensures real-time visibility and control over the network endpoints.

Benefits of ACI Endpoint Learning:

1. Enhanced Security: With ACI endpoint learning, network administrators can enforce security policies by controlling traffic flow based on endpoint characteristics. Unauthorized or suspicious endpoints can be automatically detected and isolated, reducing the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access.

2. Simplified Network Operations: ACI’s endpoint learning eliminates the need for manual configuration of network policies and access control lists (ACLs). By dynamically learning the endpoints and their associated attributes, ACI enables automated policy enforcement, reducing human error and simplifying network management.

3. Efficient Traffic Optimization: ACI’s endpoint learning enables intelligent traffic steering by understanding the location and behavior of endpoints. This information allows for intelligent load balancing and traffic optimization, ensuring optimal performance and reducing congestion within the infrastructure.

Implementation Endpoint Learning Considerations:

To leverage the benefits of ACI endpoint learning, organizations need to consider a few key aspects:

1. Infrastructure Design: A well-designed ACI fabric with appropriate leaf and spine switches is crucial for efficient endpoint learning. Proper VLAN and subnet design should be implemented to ensure accurate endpoint identification and classification.

2. Endpoint Group (EPG) Definition: Defining and associating EPGs with appropriate policies is essential. EPGs help categorize endpoints based on their characteristics, allowing for granular policy enforcement and simplified management.

Diagram: ACI Endpoint Learning. The source is Cisco.

Forwarding behavior. The COOP database

Local and remote endpoints are learned from the data plane, but remote endpoints are local caches. Cisco ACI’s fabric relies heavily on local endpoints for endpoint information. A leaf is responsible for reporting its local endpoints to the Council Of Oracle Protocol (COOP) database located on each spine switch, which implies that all endpoint information in the Cisco ACI fabric is stored there.

Each leaf does not need to know about all the remote endpoints to forward packets to the remote endpoints because this database is accessible. When a leaf does not know about a remote endpoint, it can still forward packets to spine switches. This forwarding behavior is called spine proxy.

Diagram: Endpoint Learning. The source is Cisco.

In a traditional network environment, switches rely on the Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) to map IP addresses to MAC addresses. However, this approach becomes inefficient as the network scales, resulting in increased network traffic and complexity. Cisco ACI addresses this challenge by utilizing local endpoint learning, a more intelligent and efficient method of mapping MAC addresses to IP addresses.

Diagram: Local and Remote endpoint learning. The source is Cisco.


ACI Cisco: The Main Features

We have a lot of changes right now that are impacting almost every aspect of IT. Applications are changing immensely, and we see their life cycles broken into smaller windows as the applications become less structured. In addition, containers and microservices are putting new requirements on the underlying infrastructure, such as the data centers they live in. This is one of the main reasons why a distributed system, including a data center, is better suited for this environment.

Distributed system/Intelligence at the edge

Like all networks, the Cisco ACI network still has a control and data plane. From the control and data plane perspective, the Cisco ACI architecture is still a distributed system. Each switch has intelligence and knows what it needs to do—one of the differences between ACI and traditional SDN approaches that try to centralize the control plane. If you try to centralize the control plan, you may hit scalability limits, not to mention a single point of failure and an avenue for bad actors to penetrate.


Cisco ACI Design
Diagram: Cisco ACI Design. Source Cisco Live.


MPLS overlay

In the following guide, we have an example of an MPLS overlay. Similar to that of Cisco ACI, an MPLS overlay pushes intelligence to the edge of the networks. MPLS overlay is a technique that enables the creation of virtual private networks (VPNs) over a shared IP infrastructure.

It involves encapsulating data packets with MPLS labels, allowing routers to forward traffic based on these labels rather than the traditional IP routing. This process enhances network efficiency, reduces complexity, and creates secure and isolated network segments.

Two PE nodes are running BGP, while the P nodes representing the core only run an IGP plus LDP. In the core, we have label switch paths that bring a lot of scalability.


MPLS overlay
Diagram: MPLS Overlay

Two large core devices

If we examine the traditional data center architecture, intelligence is often in two central devices. You could have two large core devices. What the network used to control and secure has changed dramatically with virtualization via hypervisors. We’re seeing faster change with containers and microservices being deployed more readily.

As a result, an overlay networking model is better suited. However, in a VXLAN overlay network, the intelligence is distributed across the leaf switch layer.

Therefore, distributed systems are better than centralized systems for more scale, resilience, and security. By distributing the Intelligence to the leaf layer, the scalability is not determined by the scalability of each leaf and is determined at a fabric level. However, there are scale limits on each device. Therefore, scalability as a whole is determined by the network design.

A key point: Overlay networking

The Cisco ACI architecture provides an integrated Layer 2 and 3 VXLAN-based overlay networking capability to offload network encapsulation processing from the compute nodes onto the top-of-rack or ACI leaf switches. This architecture provides the flexibility of software overlay networking in conjunction with the performance and operational benefits of hardware-based networking. We will have a lab guide on overlay networking in just a moment.

ACI infrastructure
Diagram: ACI infrastructure.


ACI Cisco New Concepts

Networking in the Cisco ACI architecture differs from what you may use in traditional network designs. It’s not different because we use an entirely new set of protocols. ACI uses standards-based protocols such as BGP, VXLAN, and IS-IS. However, the new networking constructs inside the ACI fabric exist only to support policy.

ACI has been referred to as stateless architecture. As a result, the network devices have no application-specific configuration until a policy is defined stating how that application or traffic should be treated on the network.

This is a new and essential concept to grasp. So, now, with the ACI, the network devices in the fabric have no application-specific configuration until there is a defined policy. No configuration is tied to a device. With a traditional configuration model, we have many designs on a device, even if it’s not being used. For example, we had ACL and QoS parameters configured, but nothing was using them.


  • Cisco ACI: Stateless Architecture.

  • ACI Network: Standards-based protocols such as BGP.

  • ACI Network: New ACI network constructs.

  • ACI Fabric Contructs: EPGs and Contracts.

  • Cisco ACI Architecture: VXLAN distributed architecture.

  • Cisco ACI Fabric: No policy tied to devices.


The APIC controller

The APICs, the management plan that defined the policy, do not need to push resources when we don’t have anything connected that utilizes that. The APIC controller can see the entire fabric and has a holistic viewpoint.

Therefore, it can correlate configurations and integrate them with devices to help manage and maintain the security policy you define. We see every device on the fabric, physical or virtual, and can maintain policy consistency and, more importantly, recognize when policy needs to be enforced. 

APIC Controller
Diagram: APIC Controller. Source Cisco Live.


Endpoint groups (EPG)

We touched on this a moment ago. Groups or endpoint groups (EPGs) and contracts are core to the ACI. Because this is a zero-trust network by default, communication is blocked in hardware until a policy consisting of groups and contracts is defined. With Endpoint Groups, we can decouple and separate the physical or virtual workloads from the constraints of IP addresses and VLANs. 

So, we are grouping similar workloads into groups known as Endpoint Groups. Then, we can control group behavior by applying policy to the groups and not the endpoints in the group. As a security best practice, it is essential to group similar workloads with similar security sensitivity levels and then apply the policy to the endpoint group.

For example, a traditional data center network could have database and application servers in the same segment controlled by a VLAN with no intra-VLAN filtering. The EPG approach removes the barriers we have had with traditional networks with the limitation of the IP address being used as the identifier and locator and the VLANs restrictions.

This is a new way of thinking and allows devices to communicate with each other without having to change the IP address, VLAN, or subnet.

ACI Endpoint Groups
Diagram: ACI Endpoint Groups. Source Cisco Live.


EPG Communication

The EPG provides a better way to provide segmentation than the VLAN, which was never meant to live in a world of security. Anything in the group, by default, can communicate freely, and Inter-EPG communication needs a policy. This policy construct that ACI uses is called a contract. So, having similar workloads of similar security levels in the same EPG makes sense. All devices inside the same endpoint group can talk to each other freely.

This behavior can be modified with intra-EPG isolation, similar to a private VLAN where communication between group members is not allowed. Or, intra-EPG contracts can be used only to allow specific communications between devices in an EPG.

Endpoint groups
Diagram: Cisco Endpoint Groups (EPG).


Data Center Network Challenges

Let us examine well-known data center challenges and how the Cisco ACI network solves them.

Cisco Data Center

Cisco ACI 


  • Complicated Topologies

  • Oversubscription

  • Varying Bandwidths

  • Management Challenges

Cisco Data Center

Cisco ACI 


  • Lack of Portability

  • Issues with ACL

  • Issues with Spanning Tree

  • Core-Distribution Designs

Complicated topologies

Usually, a traditional data center network design uses core distribution access layers. When you add more devices, this topology can be complicated to manage. Cisco ACI uses a simple spine-leaf topology wherein all the connections within the Cisco ACI fabric are from leaf-to-spine switches, and a mesh topology is between them. There is no leaf-to-leaf and no spine-to-spine connectivity.

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

The Cisco ACI architecture uses the leaf-spine, consisting of a two-tier “fat tree” topology with equidistant bandwidths. The leaf layer connects to the physical and virtual workloads and network services. The Spine layer is the transport layer, interconnecting the leaves.


Oversubscription generally means potentially requiring more resources from a device, link, or component than are available. Therefore, the oversubscription ratio must be examined at multiple aggregation points in the design, including the line card to switch fabric bandwidth and the switch fabric input to uplink bandwidth.

Oversubscription Example

Let’s look at a typical 2-layer network topology with access switches and a central core switch. The access switches have 24 user ports and one uplink port. The uplink port is connected to the core switch. Each access switch has 24 1Gb user ports and a 10Gb uplink port. So, in theory, if all the user ports are transmitted to a server simultaneously, they would require 24 GB of bandwidth (24 x 1 GB).

However, the uplink port is only 10Gb, limiting the maximum bandwidth to all the user ports. The uplink port is oversubscribed because the theoretical required bandwidth (24Gb) exceeds the available bandwidth (10Gb). Oversubscription is expressed as a ratio of bandwidth needed to available bandwidth. In this case, it’s 24Gb/10Gb or 2.

Varying bandwidths

We have layers of oversubscription with the traditional core, distribution, and access designs. We have oversubscription at the access, distribution, and core layers. The cause of this will give varying bandwidth to endpoints if they want to communicate with an endpoint that is near or an endpoint that is far away. With this approach, endpoints on the same switch will have more bandwidth than two endpoints communicating across the core layer.

Users and application owners don’t care about networks; they want to place their workload wherever the computer is and want the same BW regardless of where you place it. However, with traditional designs, the bandwidth available depends on where the endpoints are located.

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

The ACI leaf and spine have equidistant endpoints between any two endpoints. So if any two servers have the same bandwidths, which is a big plus for data center performance, then it doesn’t matter where you place the workload, which is a big plus for virtualized workloads. This gives you unlimited workload placement.

data center challenges
Diagram: Data center challenges.


Lack of portability

Applications are built on top of many building blocks. We use contracts such as VLANs, IP addresses, and ACLs to create connectivity. We use these constructs to create and translate the application requirements to the network infrastructure. These constructs are hardened into the network with configurations applied before connectivity.

These configurations are not very portable. It’s not that they were severely designed; they were never meant to be portable. Location Independent Separation Protocol (LISP) did an excellent job making them portable. However, they are hard-coded for a particular requirement at that time. Therefore, if we have the exact condition in a different data center location, we must reconfigure the IP address, VLANs, and ACLs. 

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

An application refers to a set of networking components that provides connectivity for a given set of workloads. These workloads’ relationship is what ACI calls an “application,” and the connection is expressed by what ACI calls an application network profile. With a Cisco ACI design, we can create what is known as Application Network Profiles (ANPs).

The ANP expresses the relationship between the application and its communications. It is a configuration template used to express the relationship between segments. The ACI then translates those relationships into networking constructs such as VLANs, VXLAN, VRF, and IP addresses that the devices in the network can then implement.

Issues with ACL

The traditional ACL is very tightly coupled with the network topology. Anything that is tingly coupled will kill agility. They are configured on a specific ingress and egress interface and pre-set to expect particular traffic flow. These interfaces are usually at demarcation points in the network. However, many other points in the network could do so with security filtering.

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

The fundamental security architecture of the Cisco ACI design follows an allow-list model where we explicitly define what traffic should be permitted. A contract is a policy construct used to define communication between EPGs.  Without a contract between EPGs, no unicast communication is possible between those EPGs unless the VRF is configured in “unenforced” mode or those EPGs are in a preferred group.

A contract is not required to communicate between endpoints in the same EPG (although transmission can be prevented with intra-EPG isolation or intra-EPG contract). We have a different construct to apply the policy in ACI. We use the contract construct, and within the contract construct, we have subjects and filters that specify how endpoints are allowed to communicate.

These managed objects are not tied to the network’s topology because they are not applied to a specific interface. Instead, the contracts are used in the intersection between EPGs. They represent rules the network must enforce irrespective of where these endpoints are connected.   

Issues with Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)

A significant shortcoming of STP is that it is a brittle failure mode that can bring down entire data centers or campus networks when something goes wrong. Though modifications and enhancements have addressed some of these risks, this has happened at the cost of technical debt in design and maintenance.

When you think about how this works, we have a BPDU that acts as a HELLO mechanism, and when we stop receiving the BPDUs and the link stays up, we decide to forward all the links. So, spanning Tree Protocol causes outages.

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

The Cisco ACI does not run Spanning Tree Protocol natively, meaning the ACI control plane does not run STP. Inside the fabric, we are running IS-IS as the interior routing protocol. If we stop receiving, we don’t go into an all-forwarding state with IS-IS. As we have IP reachability between Leaf and Spine, we don’t have to block ports and see actual traffic flows that are not the same as the physical topology.

So, within the ACI fabric, we have all the advantages of layer three networks, which are more robust and predictable than we have with an STP design. With ACI, we don’t rely on SPT for the topology design. Instead, the ACI uses ECMP for layer 2 and Layer 3 forwarding. We can use ECMP because we have routed links between the leaves and spines in the ACI fabric. So, the ACI has ECMP for Layer 2 and Layer 3 forwarding.

leaf and spine design
Diagram: Leaf and spine design.

Core-distribution design

The traditional design uses VLANs to segment Layer 2 boundaries and broadcast domains logically. VLANs use network links inefficiently, resulting in rigid device placement. We also have a cap on the number of VLANs we can create. Some applications require that you need Layer 2 adjacencies.

For example, clustering software requires Layer 2 adjacency between source and destination servers. However, if we are routing at the access layer, only servers connected to the same access switch with the same VLANs trunked down would be Layer 2-adjacent. 

How ACI Cisco overcomes this

VXLAN solves this dilemma in ACI by decoupling Layer 2 domains from the underlying Layer 3 network infrastructure. With ACI, we are using the concepts of overlays to provide this abstract. Isolated Layer 2 domains can be connected over a Layer 3 network using VXLAN. Packets are transported across the fabric using Layer 3 routing.

Layer 2 networks are fully supported using this paradigm. Large layer-2 domains will always be needed, for example, for VM mobility, clusters that don’t or can’t use dynamic DNS and non-IP traffic, and broadcast-based intra-subnet communication.


Cisco ACI Architecture: Leaf and Spine

The fabric is symmetric with a leaf and spine design, and we have central bandwidth. Therefore, regardless of where a device is connected to the fabric, it has the same bandwidth as every other device connected to the same fabric. This removes the placement restrictions that we have with traditional data center designs. A spine-leaf architecture is a data center network topology that consists of two switching layers—a spine and a leaf.

The leaf layer comprises access switches that aggregate server traffic and connect directly to the spine or network core. Spine switches interconnect all leaf switches in a full-mesh topology.

With low latency east-west traffic, optimized traffic flows are imperative for performance, especially for time-sensitive or data-intensive applications. A spine-leaf architecture aids this by ensuring traffic is always the same number of hops from its next destination, so latency is lower and predictable.

Displaying a VXLAN tunnel 

We have expanded the original design and added VXLAN. We are creating a Layer 2 network or, more specifically, a Layer 2 Overlay over a Layer 3 routed core. The Layer 2 extension allows the two hosts, desktop 0 and desktop 1, to communicate over a Layer 2 overlay that VXLAN creates.

The IP addresses of the hosts are and and are not reachable via the Leaf switches. The leaf switches cannot ping these. Consider the Leaf and the Spine switches a standard Layer 3 WAN or network for this lab. So we have unicast connectivity over the WAN.

The only IP routing addition I have added is the new loopback addresses on Leaf 1 and 2, of and, used for ingress replication for VXLAN. Remember that the ACI is one of many products that use Layer 2 overlays. VXLAN can be used as a Layer 2 DCI. For a lab guide displaying Multicast VXLAN, go to this blogWhat is VXLAN

VXLAN overlay
Diagram: VXLAN Overlay


Notice below I am running a ping from desktop 0 to the corresponding desktop. These hosts are in the range, and the core does not know these subnets. I’m also running a packet capture on the link Gi1 connected to Leaf A.

Notice the source and destination are and, which are the VTEPs, and the IMCP traffic is encapsulated into UDP port 1024. The UDP port 1024 is explicitly set in the confirmation as the VXLAN port to use.


VXLAN unicast mode

ACI Network: VXLAN transport network

In a leaf-spine ACI fabric, We have a native Layer 3 IP fabric that supports equal-cost multi-path (ECMP) routing between any two endpoints in the network—using VXLAN as the overlay protocol allows any workload to exist anywhere in the network.

We can have physical and virtual machines in the same logical layer 2 domain while running layer 3 routing to the top of each rack. So we can have several endpoints connected to each leaf, and for one endpoint to communicate with another endpoint, we use VXLAN.

So, the transport of the ACI fabric is carried out with VXLAN. The ACI encapsulates traffic with VXLAN and forwards the data traffic across the fabric. Any policy that needs to be implemented gets applied at the leaf layer. All traffic on the fabric is encapsulated with VXLAN. This allows us to support standard bridging and routing semantics without the standard location constraints.

Diagram: VXLAN operations. The source is Cisco.


  • A key point – Video 3: Demonstration on overlay networking with VXLAN

The following video gives a deep dive into the operations of VXLAN—the VLAN tag field defined in 1. IEEE 802.1Q has 12 bits for host identification, supporting a maximum of only 4094 VLANs. It’s common these days to have a multi-tiered application deployment where every tier requires its segment, and with literally thousands of multi-tier application segments, this will run out.

Then came along the Virtual extensible local area network (VXLAN). VXLAN uses a 24-bit network segment ID, called a VXLAN network identifier (VNI), for identification. This is much larger than the 12 bits used for traditional VLAN identification.



Council of Oracle Protocol

COOP protocol in ACI and the ACI fabric

The fabric appears to the outside as one switch capable of forwarding Layers 2 and 3. In addition, the fabric is a Layer 3 network routed network and enables all links to be active, providing ECMP forwarding in the fabric for both Layer 2 and Layer 3. Inside the fabric, we have routing protocols such as BGP; we also use Intermediate System-to-Intermediate System Protocol (IS-IS) and Council of Oracle Protocol (COOP) for all forwarding endpoint-to-endpoint communications.

The COOP protocol in ACI communicates the mapping information (location and identity) to the spine proxy. A leaf switch forwards endpoint address information to the spine switch ‘Oracle’ using Zero Message Queue (ZMQ). The COOP protocol in ACI is something new to data centers. The Leaf switches use COOP to report local station information to the Spine (Oracle) switches.


COOP protocol in ACI

Let’s look at an example of how the COOP protocol in ACI works. We have a Leaf that learns of a host. The Leaf reports this information; let’s say it knows Host B and sends this to one of the Spine switches chosen randomly using the Council Of Oracle Protocol.

The Spine switch then relays this information to all the other Spines in the ACI fabric so that every Spine has a complete record of every single endpoint. The Spines switches record the information learned via the COOP in the Global Proxy Table, which resolves unknown destination MAC/IP addresses when traffic is sent to the Proxy address.


Lab guide on the COOP database.

So, we know that the Spine has a COOP database of all endpoints in the fabric. Council of Oracle Protocol (COOP) is used to communicate the mapping information (location and identity) to the spine proxy. A leaf switch forwards endpoint address information to the spine switch ‘Oracle’ using Zero Message Queue (ZMQ).

The command: Show coop internal info repo key allows us to verify that the endpoint is in the COOP database using the BD VNID of 16154554 mapped to the MAC address of 0050.5690.3eeb. With this command, you can also see the tunnel next hop and IPv4 and IPv6 addresses tied to this MAC address.

coop protocol in ACI
Diagram: COOP protocol in ACI


The fabric constructs

The ACI Fabric contains several new network constructs specific to ACI that enable us to abstract much of the complexity we had with traditional data center designs. These new concepts are ACI’s Endpoint Groups, Contracts, Bridge Domains, and COOP protocol.

In addition, we have a distributed Layer 3 Anycast gateway function that ensures optimal Layer 3 and Layer 2 forwarding. We also have original constructs you may have used, such as VRFs. The layer 3 anycast feature is popular and allows flexible placement of the default gateway suited for designs that need to be agile.


Extending the ACI Fabric

Extending the Cisco ACI architecture

I have always found extending data risky when undergoing data center network design projects. However, the Cisco ACI architecture can be extended without the traditional Layer 2 and 3 Data Center Interconnect (DCI) mechanisms. Here, we can use Multi-Pod and Multi-Site and better control large environments that need to span multiple locations and for applications to share those multiple locations in active-active application deployments.

Diagram: Extending the ACI fabric. Source is Cisco


Terms such as active-active and active-passive are often discussed when data center designs are considered. In addition, enterprises are generally looking for data center solutions that provide or can provide geographical redundancy for their applications.

Enterprises also need to be able to place workloads in any data center where computing capacity exists—and they often need to distribute members of the same cluster across multiple data center locations to provide continuous availability in the event of a data center failure. The ACI gives us options for extending the fabric to multiple locations and location types.

For example, there are stretched fabric, multi-pod, multi-site designs, and, more recently, Cisco Cloud ACI.


Cisco ACI Design
Diagram: Cisco ACI design: Extending the network.


ACI design: Multi pod

The ACI Multi-Pod is the next evolution of the original stretch fabric design we discussed. The architecture consists of multiple ACI Pods connected by an IP Inter-Pod Layer 3 network. With the stretched fabric, we have one Pod across several locations. Cisco ACI MultiPod is part of the “single APIC cluster/single domain” family of solutions; a single APIC cluster is deployed to manage all the interconnected ACI networks.

These ACI networks are called “pods,” Each looks like a regular two-tier spine-leaf topology. The same APIC cluster can manage several pods.  All of the nodes deployed across the individual pods are under the control of the same APIC cluster. The separate pods are managed as if they were logically a single entity. This gives you operational simplicity. We also have a fault-tolerant fabric since each Pod has isolated control plane protocols.

Diagram: Multi-pod. Source is Cisco


ACI design: Cisco cloud ACI

Cisco Cloud APIC is an essential new solution component introduced in the architecture of Cisco Cloud ACI. It plays the equivalent of APIC for a cloud site. Like the APIC for on-premises Cisco ACI sites, Cloud APIC manages network policies for the cloud site it runs on by using the Cisco ACI network policy model to describe the policy intent.

ACI design: Multisite

ACI Multi-Site enables you to interconnect separate APIC cluster domains or fabric, each representing a separate availability zone. As a result, we have separate and independent APIC domains and fabrics. This way, we can manage multiple fabrics as regions or availability zones. ACI Multi-Site is the easiest DCI solution in the industry. Communication between endpoints in separate sites (Layers 2 and 3) is enabled simply by creating and pushing a contract between the endpoints’ EPGs.


Cisco ACI Architecture

ACI Network

Cisco ACI 

  • Leaf and Spine

  • Equidistant endpoints

  • ACI APIC Controller

  • Multi-Pod and Multi-Site

  • VXLAN Overlay

  • Endpoint Groups

  • Bridge Domains

  • VRFs

  • Automation and Consitency

  • Multi-cloud support

  • Zero Trust Security 

  • Central Management


Cisco ACI


leaf and spine design

Spine Leaf Architecture


 modular data center design


Spine Leaf Architecture

What is spine and leaf architecture? A spine leaf architecture is a variation of data center topologies that consists of two switching layers. We have a spine-leaf switch design consisting of two layers. The leaf layer consists of access switches that aggregate traffic from endpoints that could be traditional servers or containers and connect directly to the spine, which is the network core. The Spine switch will often have two for redundancy to interconnect all leaf switches in a full-mesh leaf and spine topology. With a spine and leaf data center network design, the leaf switches do not directly connect.

Instead, all connectivity goes through the core, and the physical and logical layout is generally the same based on network overlay protocols, more than likely VXLAN. An example of a data center that utilizes such a design is the Cisco ACI. The ACI Cisco consists of three main components in ACI the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), the spine switches, and the leaf switches.


Spine Leaf Architecture

Key Spine Leaf Architecture Discussion Points:

  • Introduction to the spine leaf architecture and what is involved.

  • Highlighting the details of this type of data center design.

  • Critical points on spine-leaf switch requirements.

  • Technical details on the origins of this design.

  • Technical solutions that can be used in the leaf and spine design.


  • A key point: Video on spine leaf switch architecture with Cisco ACI

The following video provides a good overview of what is spine and leaf architecture. We will examine the leaf and spine data center architecture. We know this design is a considerable step from traditional DC design. As a use case, we will focus on how Cisco has adopted the leaf and spine design with its ACI Cisco product. We will address the components and how they form the Cisco ACI data center fabric.


Back to basic with data center design

At its most straightforward, a data center is a physical facility that houses applications and data. Such a design is based on a computing and storage resources network that enables the delivery of shared applications and data. The critical elements of a data center design include routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, servers, and application-delivery controllers.

The data center should be flexible in quickly deploying and supporting new services. Such a design needs substantial initial planning and consideration of port density, access layer uplink bandwidth, actual server capacity, and oversubscription, to name a few.


Traditional Tree-Based Topologies

We have tree-based topologies on the opposite side of a spine-leaf switch design. Tree-based topologies have been the mainstay of data center networks. Traditionally, Cisco has recommended a multi-tier tree-based data center topology, as depicted in the diagram below.

These networks are characterized by aggregation pairs ( AGGs ) that aggregate through many network points. Hosts connect to access or edge switches, which connect to distribution, and distribution connects to the core.

The core should offer no services ( firewall, load balancing, or WAAS ), and its central role is to forward packets as quickly as possible. The aggregation switches define the boundary for the Layer 2 domain, and to contain broadcast traffic to individual domains, VLANs are used to further subdivide traffic into segmented groups. A style of design that operates very differently from that of a spine leaf architecture.


The traditional three-tier model was based on the following design principles:

  1. The access switch connects to endpoints, e.g., servers.
  2. The aggregation or distribution switches provide redundant connections to access switches.
  3. The core switches provide fast transport between aggregation switches, typically connected in a redundant pair for high availability.
  4. Networking and security services such as load balancing or firewalling were typically connected to the distribution layers.


spine leaf architecture
The traditional data center design. Non spine leaf architecture.


The focus of the design

Their design’s focus was based on fault avoidance principles, and the strategy for implementing this principle is to take each switch and its connected links and build redundancy into it. This led to the introduction of port channels and devices deployed in pairs. In addition, servers pointed to a First Hop Redundancy Protocol, like HSRP or VRRP ( Hot Standby Router Protocol or Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol ). Unfortunately, the steady-state type of network design led to many inefficiencies:

  1. Inefficient use of bandwidth via a single-rooted core.
  2. Operational and configuration complexity.
  3. The cost of having redundant hardware.
  4. It is not optimized for small flows.

Recent changes to application and user requirements have changed the functions of data centers, which in turn has changed the topology and design of the data center to a spine-leaf switch topology. For example, the traditional aggregation point design style was inefficient, and recent changes in end-user requirements are driving architects to design around the following key elements.


Spine Leaf Architecture: Requirements

A spine-leaf architecture collapses one of these tiers at the most basic level, as depicted in the diagram below. Follow the following design principles:

  1. The removal of the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)
  2. Increased use of fixed-port switches over modular models for the network backbone
  3. More cabling to purchase and manage, given the higher interconnection count
  4. A scale-out vs. scale-up of infrastructure.
what is spine and leaf architecture
Diagram: What is spine and leaf architecture? 2-Tier Spine Leaf Design


Leaf and Spine Main Points

With the introduction of the cloud and containerized infrastructure, there was an increase in east-west traffic. East-west traffic differs from north to south traffic and moves laterally from server to server. Generally, this type of traffic flow stays internal to the data center.

With the change in traffic patterns, we need to design our data centers, to have low-latency and optimized traffic flows, especially for time-sensitive or data-intensive applications. A spine-leaf data center design aids this by ensuring traffic always has the same number of hops from its next destination, so latency is lower and predictable.

STP has always been problematic in the data center. Now with a leaf and spine, the capacity improves because STP is no longer required. In the past, STP blocked redundant paths between two switches, where only one could be active at any time.

As a result, paths often need to be more subscribed. With a leaf, spine-leaf architectures rely on protocols such as Equal-Cost Multipath (ECPM) routing to load balance traffic across all available paths while still preventing network loops. So instead of running STP to the spine layer, we can run routing protocols.

We also have better scalability. We can add additional spine switches, and leaf switches can be seamlessly inserted when port density becomes problematic. There is no need to take down the core layer for upgrades.

STP Blocking.
Diagram: STP Blocking. Source Cisco Press free chapter.


Data Center Requirements

  • 1) Equidistant endpoints with non-blocking network core.

Equidistant endpoints mean that every device is a maximum of one hop away from the other, resulting in consistent latency in the data center. The term “non-blocking” refers to the internal forwarding performance of the switch.

Non-blocking is the ability to forward at line rate tx/Rx – sender X can send to receiver Y and not be blocked by a simultaneous sender. A blocking architecture cannot deliver the total bandwidth even if the individually switching modules are not oversubscribed or if all ports are not transmitting simultaneously.

  • 2) Unlimited workload placement and mobility.

The application team wants to place the application at any point in the network and communicate with existing services like storage. This usually means that VLANs need to sprawl for VMotion to work. The main question is, where do we need large layer 2 domains? Bridging doesn’t scale, and that’s not just because of spanning tree issues; it’s because the MAC addresses are not hierarchical and cannot be summarized. There is also a limit of 4000 VLANs.

  • 3) Lossless transport for storage and other elephant flows.

To support this type of traffic, data centers require not only conventional QoS tools but also Data Center Bridging ( DCB ) tools such as Priority flow control ( PFC ), Enhanced transmission selection ( ETS ), and Data Center Bridging Exchange ( DCBX ) to be applied throughout their designs. These standards are enhancements that allow lossless transport and congestion notification over full-duplex 10 Gigabit Ethernet networks.




Priority-based Flow Control ( PFC )

Manages bursty single traffic source on a multiprotocol link

Enhanced transmission selection ( ETS )

Enables bandwidth management between traffic types for multiprotocol links

Congestion notification

Addresses the problems of sustained congestion by moving corrective action to the edge of the network

Data Center Bridging Exchange Protocol 

Allows the exchange of enhanced Ethernet parameters


  • 4) Simplified provisioning and management.

Simplified provisioning and management are critical to operational efficiency. However, the ability to auto-provision and for the users to manage their networks is challenging for future networks.

  • 5) High server-to-access layer transmission rate at Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

Before the advent of virtualization, servers transitioned from 100Mbps to 1GbE as processor performance increased. With the introduction of high-performance multicore processors and each physical server hosting multiple VMs, the processor-to-network connection bandwidth requirements increased dramatically, making 10 Gigabit Ethernet the most common network access option for servers.

In addition, the popularization of 10 Gigabit Ethernet for server access has provided a straightforward approach to group/bundle multiple Gigabit Ethernet interfaces into a single connection, making Ethernet an extremely viable technology for future-proof I/O consolidation.

In addition, to reduce networking costs, data centers are now carrying data and storage traffic over Ethernet using protocols such as iSCSI ( Internet Small Computer System Interface ) and FCoE ( Fibre Channel over Ethernet ). FCoE allows the transport of Fibre channels over a lossless Ethernet network.

spine-leaf switch
FCoE Frame Format


Although there has been some talk of introducing 25 Gigabit Ethernet due to the excessive price of 40 Gigabit Ethernet, the two main speeds on the market are Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. The following is a comparison table between Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet:


Gigabit Ethernet

 10 Gigabit Ethernet

+ Well know and field-tested

+ Much faster vMotion

+ Standard and cheap Copper cabling

+ Converged storage & network ( FCoE or lossless iSCSI/NFS)

+ NIC on the motherboard

+ Reduce the number of NICs per server

+ Cedric Kelly

+ Built-in Qos with ETS and PFC

+ Uses fiber cabling which has lower energy consumption and error rate

- Numerous NICs per hypervisor host. Maybe up to 6 NICs ( user data, VMotion, storage )

- More expensive NIC cards

- No storage/networking convergence. Unable to combine networking and storage onto one NIC

- Usually requires new cabling to be laid which intern could mean more structured panels

- No lossless transport for storage and elephant flows

- SFP used either for single-mode or multimode fiber can be up to $4000 list per each

Spine-Leaf Switch Design

The critical difference between traditional aggregation layers/points and fabric networks is that fabric doesn’t aggregate. If we want to provide 10GB for every edge router to send 10GB to every other edge router, we must add bandwidth between routers A and B, i.e., if we have three hosts sending at 10GB each, we need a core that supports 30 GB.


We must add bandwidth at the core because what if two routers wanted to send 2 x 10GB of data, and the core only supports a maximum of 10GB ( 10GB link between routers A and B)? Both data streams must be interleaved onto the oversubscribed link so that both senders get equal bandwidth. 

You get blocking and oversubscription when more bandwidth comes into the core than the core can accommodate. Blocking and oversubscription cause delay and jitter, which is bad for some applications, so we must find a way to provide total bandwidth between each end host.

Oversubscription is expressed as the ratio of inputs to outputs (ex. 3:1) or as a percent that is calculated (1 – (# outputs / # inputs)). For example, (1 – (1 output / 3 inputs)) = 67% oversubscribed). There will always be some oversubscription on the network, and there is nothing we can do to get away from that, but as a general rule of thumb, an oversubscription value of 3:1 is best practice.

Some applications will operate fine when oversubscription occurs. It is up to the architect to thoroughly understand application traffic patterns, bursting needs, and baseline states to define the oversubscription limits a system can tolerate accurately.

The simplest solution to overcome the oversubscription and blocking problems would be to increase the bandwidth between Router A and B, as shown in the diagram labeled “Traditional Aggregation Topology.” This is feasible up to a certain point. Router A and B links must also grow to 10GB and 30 GB when the number of edge hosts grows. Datacenter links and the optics used to connect them are expensive.


The Solution

Spine-Leaf Switch Design

The solution is to divide the core devices into several spine devices, which expose the internal fabric enabling a spine leaf architecture similar to what you see with ACI networks. This is achieved by spreading the fabric across multiple devices ( leaf and spine ).

The spreading of the fabric results in every leaf edge switch connecting to every spine core switch resulting in every edge device having the total bandwidth of the fabric. This places multiple traffic streams parallel, unlike the traditional multitier design that stacks multiple streams onto a single link.

In addition, the higher degree of equal-cost multi-path routing ( ECMP ) found with leaf and spine architectures allows for greater cross-sectional bandwidth between layers, thus greater east-west bandwidth. There is also a reduction in the fault domain compared to traditional access, distribution, and core designs.

A failure of a single device only reduces the available bandwidth by a fraction, and only transit traffic will be lost with a link failure. ECMP reduces liability to a single fault and brings domain optimization.


Origination of the spine and leaf design

Charles Clos initially designed a Clos network 1952 as a multi-stage circuit-switched interconnection network to provide a scalable approach to building large-scale voice switches. It constrained high-speed switching fabrics and required low-latency, non-blocking switching elements.

There has been an increase in the deployment of Clos-based models in data center deployments. Usually, the Clos network is folded around the middle to form a “folded-Clos” network, referred to as a spine leaf architecture. The spine-leaf switch design consists of three switches:

  • Servers connect directly to ToR ( top of rack ) switches.
  • ToR connects to aggregation switches.
  • Intermediate switches connect to aggregation switches. 

The spine is responsible for interconnecting all Leafs and allows hosts in one rack to talk to hosts in another. The leafs are responsible for physically connecting the servers and distributing traffic via ECMP across all spines nodes.


Leaf and Spine: Folded 3-Stage Clos fabric

Spine-leaf switch deployment considerations:

A. Spine-leaf switch: Fixed or modular switches


Fixed Switches

Modular switches

+ Cheaper

+ Gradual Growth

+ Lower Power Consumption

 + Larger fabrics with leaf/spine topologies

+ Require less space

 + Build-in redundancy with redundant SUPs and SSO/NSF

+ More ports per RU

+ In-Service software redundancy

+ Easier to manage

- Hard to manage

- More expensive

- Difficult to expand

- More cabling due to an increase in device numbers


The leaf layer determines the size of the spine and the oversubscription ratios. It is responsible for advertising subnets into the network fabric. An example of a leaf device would be a Nexus 3064, which provides the following:

  1. Line rate for Layer 2 and Layer 3 on all ports.
  2. Shared memory buffer space.
  3. Throughput of 1/2 terabits per second ( Tbps ) and 950 million packets per second ( Mpps )
  4. 64-way ECMP


Spine-leaf switch


The spine layer is responsible for learning infrastructure routes and physically interconnecting all leaf nodes. The Nexus 7K is the platform for the Spine device layer. The F2 series line cards can provide 48x 10G line rate ports and fit very well the requirements for a spine architecture.
The following are the types of implementations you could have with this topology:

  1. Layer 3 fabric with standard routing.
  2. Large-scale bridging ( FabricPath, THRILL, or SPB ).
  3. Many-chassis MLAG ( Cisco VSS ).

This article will focus on Layer 3 fabrics with standard routing.


B. Spine-leaf switch: Non-redundant layer 3 design

Spine-leaf switch: Design Summary

  1. Layer 3 directly to the access layer. Layer 2 VLANs do not span the spine layer.
  2. Servers are connected to single switches. Servers are not dual connected to two switches, i.e., there is no server to switch redundancy or MLAG.
  3. All connections between the switches will be pure routed point-to-point layer 3 links.
  4. There are no inter-switch VLANs, so no VLAN will ever go beyond one switch.


Spine-leaf switch: The challenge

When the spine switches only advertise the default to the leaf switches, the leaf switches lose visibility of the entire network, and you will need additional intra-spine links. Therefore, intra-spine links should not be used for data plane traffic in a leaf-spine architecture.

Spine-leaf switch: Design assumptions

The spine layer passes a default route to the Leaf. The link between the Leaf connecting to Host 1 and Spine Z fails. In the diagram, the link is marked with a red “X.” Host 4 sends traffic to the fabric destined for Host 1.

This traffic spreads ( ECMP ) across all links connecting the connected Leaf to the Spine layers. The traffic hits Spine C, and as C does not have a direct link ( it has failed ) to the Leaf connecting to Host 1, some traffic may be dropped while others will be sub-optimal. To overcome this, you must add inter-switch links between the Spine layers, which is not recommended.


  • A key point: Video on Spine and Leaf design with Cisco ACI.

The following video will address fabric deployment and provisioning in the CISCO ACI. All of this is done automatically for you, and we will check to ensure this has been done for you. The Cisco ACI operates over a leaf and spine architecture.

We will confirm this by checking the individual ports on each ACI node, LLD status, and IS-IS adjacency status. We will also examine the traditional DC design based on the 3-tier architecture with many drawbacks, forcing us to move to a leaf and spine data center design.



Spine-leaf switch: Recommendations

  1. Buy Leaf switches that can support enough IP prefixes and don’t use summarization from Spine to Leaf.
  2. Always use 40G links instead of channels of 4 x 10G links because link aggregation bandwidth does not affect routing costs. If you lose a link in the port channel, the cost of the port channel does not change, which could result in congestion on the link. You could use Embedded Event Manager ( EEM ) scripting to change the OSPF cost after one of the port channels fails. This would add complexity to the network as you now don’t have equal-cost routes. This would lead you to use the Cisco proprietary protocol EIGRP, which supports unequal cost routing. If you didn’t want to support a Cisco proprietary protocol, you could implement MPLS TE between the ToR switches. First, you need to check that the DC switches support the MPLS switching of labels.
  3. Use QSFP optics as they are more robust than SFP optics. This will lower the likelihood of one of the parallel links failing.


C. Spine-leaf switch: Redundant layer 3 design

Spine-leaf switch: Design Summary

  1. The servers are dual home to two different switches.
  2. Servers have one IP address due to the restriction of TCP applications. Ideally, use LACP ( Link Aggregation Control Protocol ) between the host and servers.
  3. Layer 2 trunk links between the Leaf switches are needed to carry VLANs that span both switches. This will restrict VLANs from spanning the core, thus creating a sizeable L2 fabric based on STP.
  4. ToR switches must be in the same subnets ( share the server’s subnet) and advertise this subnet into the fabric. Again, the servers are dual-homed to 2 switches with one IP address.


Spine-leaf switch: The challenges

The leaf switches both advertise the same subnet to the spine switches. The spine switches and thinks they have two paths to reach the host. The Spine switch will spread its traffic from Host 1 to Leaf switches connecting Host 1 and Host 2. In specific scenarios, this could result in traffic to the hosts traversing the Interswitch link between the leaf nodes. This may not be a problem if most traffic leaves the servers northbound ( traffic leaving the data center ). However, if there is a lot of inbound traffic, this link could become a bottleneck and congestion point. This may not be an issue if this is a hosting web server farm because most traffic will leave the data center to external users.


Spine-leaf switch: Recommendation

  1. If there is a lot of east-to-west traffic ( 80 % ), using LAG ( Link Aggregation Group ) between the servers and ToR Leaf switches is mandatory.
  2. The two Leaf switches must support MLAG ( Multichassis Link Aggregation ). The result of using MLAG on the Leaf switches is that when either connecting Leaf receives traffic destined for host X, it knows it can reach it directly through its connected link—resulting in optimal southbound traffic flow.
  3. Most LAG solutions place traffic generated from a single TCP session onto a single uplink, limiting the TCP session throughput to the bandwidth of a single uplink interface. However, Dynamic NIC teaming is available in Windows Server 2012 R2 which can split a single TCP session into multiple flows and distribute them across all uplinks.
  4. Use dynamic link aggregation – LACP and not static port channels. The LAGs between servers and switches should use LACP to prevent traffic blackholing.


Key Spine Leaf Architecture Summary Points:

Main Checklist Points To Consider

  • The spine leaf architecture consists of a leaf layer and a spine layer. Endpoints connect to the leaf layer—the spine switch act as the core.

  • This layout of the leaf and spine gives you optimal load balancing and ECMP for any endpoint in any location.

  • The traditional tree-based topologies are not suited for virtualization and you will always be hit with the core port count.

  • The spine and leaf can build massive data centers with, for example, folder 3-stage design.

  • Cisco ACI is an example of a leaf and spine design. VXLAN is the most common overlay protocol that works over what is known as the underlay.


Spine-leaf switch