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Cisco focuses on ‘systems’

Jan 05, 20044 mins
Cisco SystemsData Center

* Cisco talk centers on ‘systems’ approach

Early in December, Cisco hosted industry analysts and more than ever stressed a focus on systems rather than products. Beyond the fact that “systems” sound more strategic than “products,” Cisco offered a lot more information this time about just what becoming a “systems vendor” might mean and why it’s a good idea.

At the highest level, I think that this is a good direction for Cisco, for exactly the reason that Cisco gave: network devices are increasingly bought and sold more like commodities than like strategic investments.

To get to a more strategic role, Cisco is promoting a self-managing, secure, and ultimately self-adapting and business-aligned “Intelligent Network.” This approach can be a good one, but it still resides at a high level, and can potentially lead to a Pandora’s box of non-sequiturs, just as it can lead to a new and enhanced strategic position for Cisco.

For Cisco to make this most of this new direction, it will have to, as a part of its planning, deconstruct its existing business model and keep a fresh and open mind about how it might play in the many multiple markets, with multiple players, with whom this “systems vision” must evolve. Some of these other markets are security, storage, CRM and network management. To do this, Cisco must also provide systems-level advantages in multi-vendor networks.

Short of acquiring one of the management frameworks – which is probably the worst thing Cisco could do – this means a careful blueprint for understanding how Cisco can support data gathering and data sharing, and provide guidance, control and analytics to support many other brands of management and control, not only those built into Cisco devices. In today’s market, systems vendors must play well with others, and the first requirement is a plan and a brand to support good citizenship.

So here are just a few specifics regarding this new “systems” role:

* Cisco outlined an architectural evolution beyond intelligent transport, to intelligent infrastructure optimization, to an architecture that is fundamentally “application aware” (my term). This third stage is much like on-demand computing in that automation leads to better use of the infrastructure by business applications. Needless to say, this piece of architectural discussion is a vast one.

* Just about everyone, starting with Cisco CEO John Chambers, focused on putting process ahead of technology. This is of course the right sequence, and Cisco showed some interesting charts – among my favorites – that demonstrated how reversing the sequence can actually result in negative return on investment. Nevertheless, Cisco’s willingness to invest in process-related skills and resources was not elaborated upon.

* At one point, one of the Cisco presenters made the unfortunate remark that the network was “the enabler” for on-demand. That and another remark, lead to questions about taking on HP and IBM. Cisco wisely backed off, stressing openness and partnership. However, it did send up a red flag. While there is no clear blueprint yet for how network components, system components, application components and pure-play management (and control) components need to interact for on-demand (or adaptive networking) to succeed, the worst approach is for each device vendor to natively build an introverted, Steinberg cartoon strategy focusing purely on its own realm with no handshakes to other areas. (The famous Steinberg cartoon shows how Manhattanites see the rest of the world – the Hudson River is big, Jersey pretty big, the Midwest fading, California a faint trace, and the Pacific Ocean leading to Asia mostly a border).

* Cisco introduced a Cisco Security Agent, focused on virus management and access control for downstream system devices as they access the network. In other words, this is a product designed to complement other virus and access control products that are more systems and data-center centric. Sad to say, too often Cisco didn’t present it this way. Rather it came across as “the” answer for access control.

* To be honest, one of my biggest areas for enthusiasm was in talking with some of the storage execs, and the potential for integrated storage management and control across the network that the Andiamo acquisition represents. This has immediate and demonstrable value, as well as long-term implications.

All in all, I would like to be encouraging. But the “gotchas” here are cultural, and therefore the very toughest types to resolve. If Cisco can pull this off, I would argue that it could accelerate the industry in general into many positive areas of growth. If Cisco fails to do this and confronts the market with an “all or nothing” entity – the “intelligent network” made up exclusively of Cisco devices – it will have lost a good opportunity to make industry history.