Cisco opening up IOS

Looks to make software third-party friendly

Cisco plans on opening up its venerable IOS routing software to third-party developers, company officials at this week's C-Scape conference said.

SAN JOSE – Cisco's plan to open up its venerable IOS routing software to customers and third-party developers is a bold move designed to further the company's push to make the network the epicenter of the virtual data center.

Since its debut more than 20 years ago, IOS has largely been a closed, proprietary, tightly guarded jewel in Cisco's lockbox. But the company's ambitions to make the network the platform for all IT operations and become a software force are in turn forcing Cisco to give up a little in return – like making IOS more than just a platform for Cisco-developed services.

"It's a significant step forward for us," said Don Proctor, senior vice president of Cisco's newly formed Software Group, at last week's C-Scape 2007 analyst conference. "Software turns out to be a key way that we can do what [we've] been talking about for some time, which is link business architecture to technology architecture in a meaningful way."

Cisco plans to "componentize" IOS – developing only one implementation of a specific function instead of several, depending on the image – dynamically link IOS services and move the software onto a Unix-based kernel. Cisco then plans to open up interfaces on IOS to allow third-party and customer-developed applications to access IOS services.

However, no timeframe for doing so was provided.

Analysts say the plan is key to Cisco's heightened ambitions in the data center and software.

"I think it's a smart – and necessary – move to create APIs so that infrastructure can speak to IOS-enabled devices," says Rob Whiteley of Forrester Research. "If you think about it, the network is one of the least programmable pieces of the infrastructure. The automation and orchestration market is far more oriented towards servers, storage and desktop environments. The ability to dynamically change the network is a missing component. However, the recent push for virtualization is now shining a bright spotlight on just how statically configured most enterprise networks are. But now that the network is a bottleneck for virtualization, companies are eager to rethink that environment."

Others agree, though the benefits for enterprise customers may be a ways off.

"This is a nice sense of direction statement – it says that Cisco understands that SOA and Web 2.0 are fundamentally changing how applications are built," says Jim Metzler of Ashton Metzler and Associates. "My feeling is that it is going to take a lot of work to open up IOS. That is most likely why they didn't give any timeframe. I don't think it will have much impact on enterprise IOS users for quite a while."

Cisco's plan is similar to what Juniper Networks announced for its JUNOS operating system earlier this week. Juniper announced a Partner Solution Development Platform (PSDP) allowing customers and partners to develop specialized applications on its JUNOS operating system.

The PSDP includes a software development kit with "intelligent and secure" interfaces to Juniper's JUNOS routing and service functions.

This limited open source concept is intriguing to David O'Berry, the IT director for the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon."Juniper, Cisco, I don't care what company it is, they have to have a business case when they develop new services. We need to create a framework that people can plug their own modules into," O'Berry says.He says opening up router APIs could help improve network security. For instance, an application that could take data gathered by McAfee's ePO and trigger router responses to possible threats could help contain malicious exploits.He suspects that third-party software developers, service providers and corporate users of the highest end routers will make the most use of this new openness.

At the same time he says the router vendors have to be certain the APIs don't create a new attack vector against the routers and that there are safeguards that peripheral applications don't overwhelm router processing power.

"If there's a general trend through what we're doing in all of our software businesses, [it's] more and more extensibility," Cisco's Proctor says, "so that third parties, including our customers, can add value to the software. "The notion going forward is that to the extent that we can modularize the services that will give customers more flexibility in turning up these services, in how they upgrade, in how they add news services to the network, and really simplify the process of running what are today in some cases very large, complex enterprise networks."

Cisco's formation of the Software Group within its Cisco Development Organization (CDO) was arguably the most significant move associated with last week's reorganization of CDO. All Cisco software development operations – IOS, Unified Communications, Collaboration and Network Management – now fall under one orchestrator, Proctor.

The move was made to coordinate product development and inject a common set of services across all of Cisco's software assets, company officials said. Another catalyst was Cisco's intention to drive collaboration as a business process, and the network infrastructure as the platform for all IT services.

More than half of Cisco's 15,000 to 20,000 developers are software engineers.

"We're looking at more significant software transitions over the next several years than we've seen in this industry," Proctor said, referring to the emergence of collaboration, Web 2.0 and video as key business processes going forward. "We'd like to say Cisco has distinguished itself as a software company" five years from now.

Senior Editor Tim Greene contributed to this story.

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