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Virtualize Your Office without Relearning Everything

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Hall of Fame Cisco Employee

In the beginning (circa 2001), mankind lived in caves and lit fires with a flint. We also built towering monuments to the gods of Information Technology. Offices, retail stores, banks, centers of commerce – anywhere that people gathered – dedicated large metal racks, sometimes entire rooms, to appease these deities in hopes for blessings of uninterrupted up-time and peaceful service levels. These were the days of dedicated appliances and they spread a deep dread across the land.

Then one day off in the distant land of the Data Center a new way of thinking was born: Virtualization. With it came unknown levels of efficiencies and responsiveness. Uptimes and flexibility reached higher than anyone thought possible. There was great rejoicing throughout the land; except for those responsible for the remote offices.

The remote branch office continued to be the domain of the dedicated appliance. Purpose-built devices performed one and only one function. The router was a router and the switch a switch. Servers served and firewalls firewalled. Wireless Controllers controlled and WAN optimizers optimized. There was a purity, even an innocence, of purpose, but the bean-counter overlords were not happy. “Why could the same weapons used to destroy the Deities of the Data Center not be used here?” they would ask. “Things are different and more complex here! We have support tools and trained staff” the IT managers would exclaim before they were summarily sacked to make the quarter’s numbers.

The Problem with Virtualization in the Branch

Virtualization in a data center is a very different prospect than virtualization in the branch. The functional differences between the two locations is fundamentally different in most IT organizations.

Data Center

Branch/Remote Office

IT Staff

Manned 24/7

Normally Remote

Network Type

Ethernet

Ethernet, T1, DSL, LTE, etc…

WAN Reliance

Isolated failures if WAN links fail.

Entire location down when WAN down.

Hardware Refresh

<3 Years

>5 Years

Power Concerns

Big savings through lower power.

Power needs not generally a concern.

Space Concerns

Rack Space is Expensive.
Deep is better than RU.

Rack space for most needs.

No depth for most DC servers.

Noise

Make all the noise you want.

Zero sound. People working here.

Most of the differences between a data center and remote office can be distilled down to the fact that these are two areas where IT staff have very different business requirements even though they might be trying to do similar things. The 30” server designed for the noisy Ethernet-only data center has a hard time in the space constrained back room of a small store or office where noise is a concern and various WAN interfaces the norm.

A Different Way – Enterprise NFV

Various companies have been trying to shoe-horn those data center designs into network function virtualization (NFV) in the branch office with varying levels of success. Cisco took some time designing their entry to the branch NFV because of customer feedback that any solution for the branch needed to provide the advantages they were seeing in the data center while being familiar enough that they would not have to completely retrain their entire IT staff.

Cisco Enterprise NFV does exactly that. Building on a solid foundation of open source Linux virtualization, the Network Function Virtualization Infrastructure Software (NFVIS) provides an open sandbox for network or application functions from Cisco or any developer to be hosted. Speaking of those Virtualized Network Functions (VNFs). Cisco has been quietly developing the strongest portfolio of virtual functions over the years which are now tested and certified as part of the Enterprise NFV solution. The latest of these functions is the Virtual Next Generation Firewall (NGFWv) bringing the latest firewall technology into the virtual world.

Finally, what might be the most important piece, is the orchestration and management of the entire solution. This takes the form of Cisco Enterprise Service Automation which provides a single point of control for managing VNFs across all remote sites.

ENCS 5400 Series – One Box to Rule Them All

While NFVIS is terrific, it isn’t the whole story for the branch office. NFVIS is fully supported on Cisco UCS servers, including the C-Series and E-Series which could both be used in a branch. However, one thing that customers told us repeatedly was that they needed hardware designed for the unique requirements in the remote office. Enter the Enterprise Network Compute System or ENCS.


The ENCS 5400 looks like a Cisco router. That’s intentional as it was designed by the same engineers that have been building the Integrated Services Routers (ISRs) for decades. This group knows how to build hardware that works in a remote office.

What makes the ENCS unique?

  1. Physically designed to fit into the tight space of a remote office. 1RU high and 12” deep.
  2. Network Interface Module (NIM) support for LTE, T1, DSL etc.
  3. Dual-Phy Gigabit Ethernet WAN supporting both copper and fiber connections
  4. 8-port GE Switch with UPoE
  5. Hardware for VNF network acceleration (SR-IOV)
  6. Internal (M.2) SSD and External (2.5”) SSD options
  7. 6, 8 & 12 core CPU options
  8. Memory options up to 64GB
  9. Redundant silent-running fans
  10. Lights-out management with Cisco Integrated Management Controller

Would you like to know more?

Bringing virtualization to the branch is a complex case. There’s a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous that can’t be covered in a single blog post. If this introduction has piqued your curiosity, fear not, there’s loads more information for you to consume. Online, the best starting point for information is the Enterprise NFV home on Cisco.com.

Please join me on March 14, 8:00-9:30am PT for an Enterprise Network Customer Connection briefing on Network Function Virtualization - Reality in the Branch.  (Registration for the Enterprise Network Customer Connection Program is required.  It's quick and easy to do)

This session will introduce the E-NFV Solution along with the new hardware and software that brings this new level of flexibility to your branch. 

You will learn from the product team how the introduction of the Cisco Enterprise NFV solution including the new Enterprise Network Computing System (ENCS) can virtualize many of the physical devices in your branch. One reliable, purpose-built platform can host your router, firewall, wireless LAN controller, WAN optimizer and more along with other traditional applications needed in the branch.

For folks attending Cisco Live in Berlin this week there are loads of options for them to learn more live:

BRKARC-2014, Tuesday, 3PM:

Branch Virtualization – The Evolving NFV Landscape
In this session I’ll be walking through virtualization options in the Enterprise branch including Enterprise NFV.

CCP-1002, Wednesday, 1:15PM:            

Evolution of Routing in the Enterprise Branch
This NDA session for CCP members only will walk through the public face of Enterprise NFV as well as taking you behind the scenes for a peek at our plans for how this solution evolves to bridge the IT organization from the traditional to the NFV world.

6 Comments
Rising star

Hi Matt,

Is there a resource which shows the performance capabilities of WAAS,ASA and ISR NVFs on ENCS?

Hall of Fame Cisco Employee

Not at the moment. We are working on some public test results so that is coming, but there are lots of moving parts to performance in the NFV world. For the most part, VNFs will perform the same on ENCS as on most other Broadwell-based servers which means that performance will vary with the resources reserved for the VM. We'll have some sample numbers published in a few weeks, but there's generally lots of room for tweaking based on VNFs with more or less CPU/memory/disk.

Rising star

If the performance is similar for a given amount of resources, then why would an ENCS be a better pick for a branch than a 1 RU UCS with an installed hypervisor, or even an ISR with UCS-E? After all, the hypervisor can install any software whereas with VNFs you're limited to what's been distributed as a VNF. Assuming the hypervisor licensing is available, of course.

Hall of Fame Cisco Employee

From a performance standpoint there isn't a whole lot of difference between any two servers on the market with the same CPU. A typical branch environment is a very different location than most data centers where most rack servers are designed to live. ENCS has a few things that make it much more attractive in a branch office:

  • Environmental hardening (temperature/airflow/vibration) for a typical branch office.
  • Lower noise and aggressively throttling fans based on air density (similar to an ISR) to help with noise in an office.
  • Smaller footprint (12" deep while most servers are ~30" deep)
  • Combo GE ports (Choice of RJ45 or SFP)
  • Internal M.2 drive option which is not easily removable by an office employee.
  • Network Interface Module for non-Ethernet WAN circuits
  • Built-in 8-port GE switch with UPoE option
  • SR-IOV hardware for acceleration of VM traffic
  • Cisco Integrated Management Controller (CIMC) for lights-out management

Some of this can also be found on a UCS-C server and if a C-Series meets all of the requirements in a particular office then that is certainly an option. ENCS was designed specifically for areas where a traditional server either doesn't fit or isn't rugged enough for an office environment.

Rising star

Great info, thanks!

Is an APIC-EM required to configure and deploy the NFVs?

If not, can deployment be done locally via web/cli (such as via CIMC), without an APIC-EM?

Hall of Fame Cisco Employee

The NFVIS operating system includes a local web portal that lets you deploy NFVs on an individual box. That's great for lab testing but it isn't really scalable for any real deployment size. Most Enterprise-scale deployments will want to use APIC-EM with the ESA application to orchestrate multiple devices in different locations.

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