In my old IT life I once took a meeting with a networking company. They were trying to sell me on their hardware and get me to partner with them as a reseller. They were telling me how they were the number two switching vendor in the world by port count. I thought that was a pretty bold claim, especially when I didn’t remember seeing their switches at any of my deployments. When I challenged this assertion, I was told, “Well, we’re really big in Europe.” Before I could stop my mouth from working, I sarcastically replied, “So is David Hasselhoff.” Needless to say, we didn’t take this vendor on as a partner.
I tell this story often when I go to conferences and it gets laughs. As I think more and more about it the thought dawns on me that I have never really met the third best networking vendor in the market. We all know who number one is right now. Cisco has a huge market share and even though it has eroded somewhat in the past few years they still have a comfortable lead on their competitors. The step down into the next tier of vendors is where the conversation starts getting murky.
Who’s Number Two???
If you’ve watched a professional sporting event in the last few years, you’ve probably seen an unknown player in close up followed by an oddly specific statistic. Like Bucky has the most home runs by a left handed batter born in July against pitchers that thought The Matrix should have won an Oscar. When these strange stats are quoted, the subject is almost always the best or second best. While most of these stats are quoted by color announcers trying to fill airtime, it speaks to a larger issue. Especially in networking.
No one wants the third best anything. John Chambers is famous for saying during every keynote, “If Cisco can’t be number one or number two in a market we won’t be in it.” That’s easy to say when you’re the best. But how about the market down from there? Everyone is trying to position themselves as the next best option in some way or another. Number two by port counts. Number two by ports sold (which is somehow a different metric). Number two by units shipped or amount sold or some other way of phrasing things slightly differently in order to the viable alternative.
I don’t see this problem a lot in other areas. Servers have a clear first, second, and third order. Storage has a lot of tiering. Networking, on the other hand, doesn’t have a third best option. Yet there are way more than three companies doing networking. Brocade, HPE, Extreme, Dell, Cumulus Networks, and many more if you want to count wireless companies with switching gear for the purpose of getting into the Magic Quadrant. No one wants to be seen as the next best, next best thing.
How can we fix this? Well, for one thing we need impartial ranking. No more magical polygons and reports that take seventeen pages to say “It depends”. There are too many product categories that you can slice your solution into to be the best. Let’s get back to the easy things. Switches are campus or data center. Routers are campus or service provider. Hardware falls here or there. No unicorns. No single-product categories. If you’re the only product of your kind you are in the wrong place.
Once again, I think it’s time for a networking Consumer Reports type of publication. Or maybe something like Storage Review. We need someone to come in and tell vendors that they are the third or fourth best option out there by the following simple metrics. Yes, it’s very probable that said vendors would just ignore the ranking and continue building their own marketing bubble around the idea of being the second best switching platform for orange switches sold to school districts not named after presidents. Or perhaps finding out they are behind the others will spur people inside the company into actually getting better. It’s a faint hope, but hey. The third time’s a charm.