Cisco CEO John Chambers' triumphant return to Interop

The Cisco CEO returned to the stage at Interop for the first time in six years, shedding some light on some interesting Cisco developments.

It's been an interesting past few months for Cisco’s CEO John Chambers. The company’s stock has had a nice run over the past year, rising from $17 to $27, but recently has fallen to a little over $23. The company has continued to drive well above industry average margins, making Cisco one of the most profitable tech companies out there. But Cisco recently announced it was laying off about 4000 workers. One could say that he’s a lot like Katy Perry in the way they dance (remember “Cisco Inferno” to kick off Cisco Live a few years ago?) and that “he’s hot and he’s cold, he’s up and he’s down."

Cisco has been criticized for being late to articulate its vision of the evolution of the data center, but yesterday, the first full day of Interop, Chambers had another up moment. After a six-year hiatus, the CEO of the world’s largest networking company finally made a return to the main stage at Interop.

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Before I get to the data center, though, I thought one of the more interesting parts of the keynote was the demo that Chambers did with Cisco’s main demo guy, Jim Grubb. The company showed off some integration it’s done with Facebook, where users could log into a company’s guest network using their Facebook credentials. First, this improvement is greatly needed. Cisco’s process for authenticating “guests” is an overly complex process. This isn’t just a Cisco problem; most of the wireless LAN vendors have guest authentication processes that are much more difficult than they need to be.

The demo Cisco gave was a person in a retail environment logging onto the guest Wi-Fi using Facebook credentials. Once the user logged in, the browser on the mobile device (tablet in the demo) was directed to the store’s Facebook page. Any discounts, promotions, coupons, etc. would be made available to the individual. In theory, using location intelligence, purchase history information, personal preferences or any other demographic information, the retailer could direct custom information to the shopper.

This type of experience could be used to enhance the experience at schools, hotels, airports or other environments where there is value in directing the users. Much of this functionality is made possible from a Cisco product called the “Mobility Services Engine,” or MSE. The MSE has been available to customers now for several years and allows organizations to build applications that are uniquely mobile. One of the most interesting elements of this partnership is to consider what’s possible. Facebook provides a veritable cornucopia of analytic information about its subscribers. The Facebook information, combined with the network information made available from Cisco, could enable organizations to take personalized services to a much more granular level than is available today.

The other interesting takeaway from the Chambers keynote was the reiteration of the company’s commitment to what it calls “Application Centric Infrastructure” (ACI). ACI is Cisco’s vision of the future data center and is similar to VMware’s Software Defined Data Center in that both vendors tout a world where data center infrastructure evolves to become fluid resources that can be provisioned and migrated through a centralized management console. The vision is really the only similarity, though. Cisco’s ACI vision will leverage purpose-built hardware that will, in theory, give greater scale, visibility and a lower total cost of ownership to software-only models. Much of the hardware to deliver this is expected to come from the future “spin-in” of Insieme, which is likely to happen by year’s end. There are a lot of rumors regarding what exactly Insieme will deliver and what the timing will be, but few confirmed details from Cisco. However, and whenever Insieme comes to life, it will certainly add fuel to the already hotly burning feud with VMware.

It was certainly good to see Chambers back on the main stage at Interop. The Facebook demo was something cool to see now and gave us something to look forward to soon. Let’s just hope it’s not another six years before he keynotes Interop again.

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