Cisco ACI vs Cisco DNA: Understanding the difference

Rashmi Bhardwaj | Blog,Cloud & Virtualization,Programming & Software


Application centric infrastructure (ACI) and Software defined access are two totally diverse terms in network environments and nowhere related to each other. However, there are lots of queries related to these two terminologies about their purpose, usage, and features. 

Today we look at two mainstream products related to these Cisco ACI and Cisco DNA and understand their purpose , use cases and functionality and how they contribute to applications agility and data center automations. 

Cisco ACI

Cisco ACI stands for ‘ Application centric infrastructure’ its focus is applications agility and data center automation . A new initiative from Cisco as it is called. ACI can enable scalable Multi cloud networks having a consistent policy model and flexibility to move applications seamlessly to any location or any cloud ensuring high availability and security. Hardware used for Cisco ACI is Cisco Nexus 9000 devices in Spine and leaf architecture. It provides a layer 3 IP fabric which supports equal cost multi-path (ECMP) routing between two endpoints in a network and uses overlay protocols like virtual extensible local area network (VXLAN) under the cover to allow any workloads to reside anywhere in the network. 


Cisco DNA came into existence in 2014 and took up substantial market share in scalability, automation, and user experience. It allows authorized admins to fine tune automation in data centres big or small. It simplifies DC networking by removing complexities of manual fixing up of network issues. All organized devices are treated as single entity admins can configure and manage all at same time in APIC.

It saves money and time both which otherwise spent on manually configuring or managing network components. It has HTML 5 GUI interface which relieves administrators from using CLI or REST API for tedious manner of equipment configuration. It delivers application-oriented platform and use leaf-spine topology (CLOS) which is simple and scalable and easy to expand as per need. 

Cisco ACI Architecture

Cisco ACI features

  • Simplified application driven architecture 
  • Any load anywhere
  • Centralized visibility for application health monitoring in real time
  • Open software flexibility for DevOps teams 
  • Supports integration with existing fabric infrastructure
  • Hardware multi-tenancy and scalable performance 
  • Seamless integration of underlay and overlay

Cisco DNA

Cisco DNA architecture has multiple solutions built around it. It defines architecture for Cisco SDA (Software Defined Access) solution and is going to be aligned to Cisco SDWAN solution. Cisco DNA is a subset of this with Cisco ISE used for user authentication and Cisco Catalyst 9K as hardware in many cases. Cisco 3850 and Cisco catalyst switch 6K also supports Cisco DNA architecture.

Cisco DNA is a software-based method to automate and guarantee services across WAN, campus, and branch networks. It is an intent based network solution and permits networks to deploy new networks virtually and create policies with few mouse clicks. New policy rollouts, new network deployments, support for new applications which operate locally or on cloud  across the WAN quick configurations from single point. 

Cisco DNA Architecture 

Cisco DNA features 

  • Multi-vendor support it allows management of non cisco devices
  • Notification handler for specific events
  • Ability to receive custom notifications on trigger of specific events such as software upgrade in response to event notification that network devices which are out of compliance
  • Enables creation of application policies in line with business intent
  • Open and extensible programming interface at each layer
  • Ease of design, provision, and monitor network
  • Network management over a centralized dashboard
  • Policy driven automation 
  • Analytics and assurance to optimize network performance 

Comparison table: CISCO ACI vs Cisco DNA

Below table summarizes the differences between the two:




DefinitionCisco ACI stands for ‘ Application centric infrastructure’ it is a holistic architecture with centralized automation and policy driven application profiles.Cisco DNA is a software-based method to automate and guarantee services across WAN, campus, and branch networks
TechnologyLeaf / edge configuration with centralized configuration from APIC GUILeaf / edge configuration which can be customized for each edge
  • All switches / controllers must be on same version
  • All Spines having same configuration
  • ISIS is pushed to all devices using APIC
  • Switches/controllers can be any version provided it is supported by Cisco DNA
  • Customized border nodes
  • ISIS is manually configured on each device unless LAN automation is there. DNA Can also use OSPF protocol for underlay
Uses/ApplicationsData CenterWAN/Campus

Download the comparison table: Cisco ACI vs Cisco DNA

Continue Reading:

What is Cisco DNA?

Cisco ACI Network Centric vs Application Centric approach

CISCO ACI Benefit Over VMware NSX


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