Cisco and Viptela – The Price of Development Debt


Cisco finally pulled themselves into the SD-WAN market by acquiring Viptela on Monday. Viptela was considered to be one of, if not the leading SD-WAN vendor in the market. That Cisco decided to pick them as an acquisition target isn’t completely surprising. But one might wonder why?

IWANna New Debt

Cisco’s premier strategy for SD-WAN up until last week was IWAN. This is their catch-all solution designed to take the various component pieces being offered by SD-WAN solutions and replicate them on Cisco hardware. IWAN has served as a vehicle for Cisco to push things like the APIC-EM solution, Cisco ONE licensing, and a variety of other enhanced technologies like NBAR and PfR.

Cisco has packaged these technologies together because they have spent a couple of decades building these protocols up to be the best at what they do in the industry. NBAR was the key to application QoS years ago. PfR and OER were the genesis of Cisco having the ability to intelligently route packets to destinations. These protocols have formed the cornerstone of their platform for many, many years.

So why is IWAN such a mess? If you have the best of breed technology built into a router that makes the packets fly across the Internet at lightning speeds how is it that companies like Viptela were eating Cisco’s lunch in the SD-WAN space? It’s because those same best-of-breed protocols are to blame for the jigsaw puzzle of IWAN.

If you are the product manager for a protocol like NBAR or PfR, you want it to be adopted by as many people as possible. Wide adoption guarantees you’re going to have a job tomorrow or even next year. The people working on EIGRP and OSPF are safe. But if you get left behind technologically, you’re in for rough seas. Just ask the folks that managed LANE. But if you can attach yourself to a movement that’s got some steam, you’re in the drivers seat.

At the same time, you want your protocol or product to be the best at what it does. And sometimes being the best means you don’t compromise. That’s great when you are the only thing running on the system. But when you’re trying to get protocols to work together to create something bigger, you often find that compromises are not just a good idea, they’re necessary. But how do you handle it when the product manager for NBAR and the product manager for IP SLA get into a screaming match over who is going to blink first?

Using existing protocols and products is a great idea because it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you design something. But, with that wheel comes the technical debt of development. Given the chance to reuse something that thousands, if not millions, of dollars of R&D has gone into, companies like Cisco will jump at the chance to get some more longevity out of a protocol.

Not Pokey, But Gumby

Now, lets look at a scrappy startup like Viptela. They have to build their protocols from the ground up. Maybe they have the opportunity of leveraging some open source projects or some basic protocol implementations to get off the ground. That means that they are starting from essentially square one. It also means they are starting off with very little technical and development debt.

When Viptela builds their application monitoring stack or their IPSec VPN stack, they aren’t trying to build the best protocol for every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a wide variety of customers. They are just trying to build a protocol that works. And not just a protocol that works on its own. They want a protocol that works with everything else they are building.

When you’re forced to do everything from scratch, you find that you avoid making some of the same choices that you were forced to make years ago. The lack of technical and development debt also means you can take a new direction with things. Don’t want to support pre-shared key IPSec VPNs? Don’t build it into the protocol. Don’t care to have some of the quirks of PfR? Build something different that meets your needs. You have complete control.

Flexibility is why SD-WAN vendors were able to dominate the market for the past two years. They were able to adapt and change quickly because they didn’t need to keep trying to make systems integrate on top the tech and dev debt they incurred during the product lifecycle. That lets them concentrate on features that customers want, not on trying to integrate features that management has decreed must be included because the product manager was convincing in the last QBR.


Tom’s Take

In the end, the acquisition of Viptela by Cisco was as much about reduction of technical and development debt in their SD-WAN offerings as it was trying to get ahead in the game. They needed something that could be used as-is without the need to rely on any internal development processes. I alluded to this during our Network Collective Off-The-Cuff show. Without the spin-out model available any longer, Cisco is going to have to start making tough decisions to get things like this done. Either those decisions are made via reduction of business units without integration or through larger dollar signs to acquire solutions to provide the cohesion they need.

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