Cisco Data Center Networking Licensing Overview

Licensing… you can’t get away from it.

There have been a lot of questions that have come our way about Cisco licensing, especially as it relates to Cisco Nexus switches and what licenses you need for what. This blog should help clear that up.

First, a bit of history. Cisco currently offers tiered licensing across a few of its product lines, including:

  • Cisco Nexus Data Center Switches, including the NX-OS and ACI feature set. This is the subject of this article. Technically, Cisco uses the term Data Center Networking for licensing that lives in the data center, and DNA for anything client facing (switches/routers), but they are often conflated.
  • Cisco ISR/ASR Routers, specifically around their SD-WAN (legacy Viptela) feature set. I’ll cover this in a future article and update the links.
  • Cisco Catalyst Switches, including the Catalyst 9000 family, specifically around DNA Center, SD-Access, Encrypted Traffic Analysis and Identity Services Engine (ISE). I’ll also cover this in a future article.

Before we jump in, what is Data Center Networking licensing for the Nexus? DCN licensing is Cisco’s software packaging for Good/Better/Best feature sets, sold for a term duration for either three or five-years Once the term expires, it needs to be renewed at the then-current price. This is important to note, since at the end of the term, you don’t have licensing entitlement unless you renew the license.

Regardless, DCN licensing does NOT include hardware or provide any hardware entitlement. That’s a separate service that Cisco is rolling out — Hardware as a Service for Nexus. Once again, a future topic.

What are the tiers and what do I get?

I mentioned Good/Better/Best, but really it’s a tiered approach. The three tiers and the included features for Nexus Data Center switching are:

DCN Essentials ($)

Includes the basic tiers of BOTH ACI and NX-OS licensing. Yes, you can change out your licensing from ACI to NX-OS (and vice versa) during your subscription term.

The NX-OS license includes the full Layer 3 feature set, Netflow and DCNM.

On the ACI side, it’s easier to tell you what you don’t get. In Essentials, you don’t get:

  • ACI Multi-site (but you DO get Multipod)
  • Physical Remote Leaf (the ability to deploy a physical switch to a location without a full APIC cluster — GREAT for small data center footprints).
  • Cisco Network Assurance Engine

DCN Advantage ($$)

Includes everything that DNA Essentials provides, and includes the following NX-OS features:

  • MPLS Layer 3 VPN
  • VXLAN EVPN Multi-Site
  • L3 EVPN over segment routing MPLS

On the ACI side, DNA Advantage includes ACI Multi-site. This enables you to use Multi-site Orchastrator (MSO) to manage multiple APICs under one policy umbrella. (Think of it as what UCS Central/Intersight is to UCS Manager).

DCN Premier ($$$$$)

The top tier for DC licensing includes everything that’s available in both the DNA Essentials and DNA Advantage platform, but includes Cisco Network Assurance Engine (CNAE).

CNAE allows you to simulate changes on your network and proactively view the outcomes and impacts, prior to ever making a change. It also helps ensure that the proper policies are applied to the correct locations. Like all tools, it’s an excellent platform, but it takes significant investment in the people and processes to ensure that it doesn’t become shelfware.


Let’s talk what this is going to set you back. First of all, in the data center, the license pricing is based on the product family, number of ports and switch capabilities. For instance, the Nexus 9348 is priced lower than a Nexus 93180, which is lower than a Cisco 9508 chassis. Here’s a helpful table:

List pricing of Cisco Data Center Networking licensing for 9348, 93180 and 9508 switches.

Because the licensing cost is such a large portion of the overall solution, it’s absolutely critical to make sure you’re buying the right license. You CAN mix and match license tiers, so don’t pay any more than you need to.

Based on the price of Essentials, you’ll pay (on average) a 20% uplift to move to Advantage, and a 300% uplift from Essentials to Premium. However, there are outliers like a 9508 Advantage licensing being a 120% uplift over Essentials.

Depending on the amount of switches, and the proliferation of Cisco technology in your environment, a Data Center Enterprise Agreement may save you significant amounts of money compared to the published list prices. Shameless plug: 24/7 Networks sold the first DC EA ever to help our customer realize a 60% savings vs. a-la-carte. There are always pluses and minuses to an EA, but it is usually worth a discussion.

A Cisco Smart Account is required for all data center licensing redemption.


Cisco has published an at-a-glance document that provides all of this information on Nexus licensing in a manageable seven pages.

Auditing and Right-Sizing

As a service to new and existing customers, 24/7 Networks conducts right-sizing audits to ensure our customers know what they’ve purchased and understand what features and functionality they are (and are not) entitled to. It drives us crazy to have people pay for stuff that they don’t leverage, so if you share that concern, please reach out.




Data center/security/collab hack, CCIE #5026, focusing on automation, programmability, operational efficiency and getting rid of technical debt.

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Liam Keegan

Liam Keegan

Data center/security/collab hack, CCIE #5026, focusing on automation, programmability, operational efficiency and getting rid of technical debt.

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