In December, I wrote about how Cisco is showing strong signs of positive transformation in the network management arena when it introduced its Network Application Performance Management suite. I'll start off the New Year looking at Cisco's initiatives in application delivery and automating the data center - as described at the company's analyst event early last month.My jaw dropped (see the previous newsletter for the other jaw-dropping moments courtesy of Cisco) when the company began to define an evolving strategy (these are carefully chosen words as the strategy is early in its evolution) to provide network-centric services. These services would accelerate and enhance application performance over the network and to automate the data center by becoming a virtual backplane in optimizing server and networked storage clusters. With acronyms like "Application Network Services" (ANS) and "Service-Oriented Network Architecture" (SONA) - or SOA with "network" thrown in - Cisco made some bold and at times incongruous statements.\u00a0Without trying to do justice to the specifics here, Cisco's view on the surface was almost word-for-word (we do use some different metaphors) my own - being a network bigot - in terms of leveraging the network to monitor and optimize applications, systems, and storage infrastructures. My own words have been that the network is an instrumented ocean upon which applications, systems, storage devices all float. It touches everything (my words and Cisco's), and hence is a logical first point of automation and insight.\u00a0Cisco took this several logical steps further when it posited that the network fabric, via SONA, could become a cloud-centric Web services routing system, to enable software-to-software (or machine-to-machine) communication far more efficiently than having to rely on sorting everything out at the end-points.\u00a0 While this vision involves a world of pain in just standards evolution alone, it is logically an elegant and quite possibly a correct one from an abstract, design perspective.However, as Cisco's presentations and the details became more explicit regarding SONA and data center automation, it became clear to me that Cisco still has a huge cultural challenge ahead. The network as an "instrumented ocean" is about the network as "context." It is a multi-brand view, understood for years by most of the leading edge network management vendors - and here multi-brand means multiple networking hardware brands as well as software and systems brands. It is a control point for a fragmented world of geographically dispersed networks with no consistent brand identity.\u00a0My jaw dropped in a negative sense when not only did Cisco's panelists fail to grasp this distinction between context and hardware, but it also had the gall to call the data center multi-vendor (e.g. IBM and HP). It seemed to assume that the network was monolithic (which it isn't even in all Cisco shops due to the IOS and rev changes discussed last week). When I suggested that when HP talks about automating the data center it leads with OpenView, and IBM leads with software and services - the comment wasn't even understood until after a substantial amount of dialog.\u00a0\u00a0Well, to give Cisco credit it is good at doing what it as a corporation set out to do, and tend to be persistent and follow through. Also, to give it credit, it is willing to admit that it is very early in the game in SONA and its kin. And when it finally understood the question, the options remained open if exceedingly vague.I am not suggesting here that Cisco become a mainstream enterprise-management vendor, or even necessarily a mainstream network-management vendor, for any number of reasons. What I am suggesting is that to succeed in its vision of application delivery and data center automation, Cisco will have to fundamentally grasp the difference between the network as "context" and the network as "hardware." It needs to provide a balanced portfolio to deliver solutions and services, and to transform the culture of its sales support to enter a world as different as the Amazonian rain forest is from the Russian steppes.\u00a0This is 30% a technology challenge and 70% a cultural challenge. Business as usual won't cut it, unless, of course, in the end, these are only embellishments to sell hardware, and Cisco didn't really want to be a true systems vendor - aiming directly to support its customers' strategic service performance issues - in the first place.