Cisco’s Catalyst for Change

You’ve probably heard by now of the big launch of Cisco’s new 802.11ax (neé Wi-Fi 6) portfolio of devices. Cisco did a special roundtable with a group of influencers from the community called Just The Tech. Here’s a video from that event covering the APs that were released, the 9120:

Fred always does a great job of explaining the technical bits behind the APs. But one thing that caught my eye here is the name of the AP – Catalyst. Cisco has been using Aironet for their AP line since they purchased Aironet Wireless Communications back in 1999. The name was practically synonymous with wireless technologies for many people in the industry that worked exclusively with Cisco technologies.

So, is the name change something we should be concerned about?

A Rose Is a Rose Is An AP

Cisco moving toward a unified naming convention for their edge solutions makes a lot of sense. Ten years ago, wireless was still primarily 802.11g-based with 802.11n still a few months away from being proposed and ratified. Connectivity hadn’t quite yet reached the ubiquitous levels of wireless that we see today. The iPhone was only about to be on its third revision.

Cisco Catalyst devices were still the primary method of getting users connected to the network. Even laptop users hunted for Ethernet ports everywhere instead of just connecting to wireless. Ethernet was more reliable and faster than 54Mbps (at best) and fighting contention with all the other devices around. Catalyst stood for reliability.

In the time since, wireless has become the new edge device connectivity. No longer do we hunt for Ethernet ports unless we have a specific need for one. Laptops don’t come with dedicated wired networking options any longer. In 2019, wireless is king. And Aironet is the wireless name that Cisco has built. So why the change?

In short, because edge connectivity isn’t wired versus wireless any longer. Instead, it’s unified. Whether it was because of the idiotic decisions made by Gartner to required wired switching for their wireless Magic Quadrant (TM) or because people stopped thinking about Ethernet except to power wireless access points, the fact is that the edge no longer has wires. For Cisco, this means that Catalyst switches aren’t the edge any longer. So the name doesn’t have the same power as it once did.

However, the Aironet name has also lost its luster. Why? Because Aironet is a remnant of Cisco’s pre-controller AP past. The line of APs that most people are likely using in their office right now aren’t from the Aironet heritage. Instead, they are based on technology acquired by Cisco from Airespace that Cisco bought in 2005 to add controller-based technology to their portfolio. And, aside from references to Airespace in the code of the Wireless LAN Controllers (WLC), the line never really had a brand like Catalyst or Aironet.

Today, Cisco has started the move away from using Airespace technology in their controllers. As this video from 2018 shows, Cisco has begun to migrate their controller OS to a more modern platform instead of relying on modifying the old Airespace code again and again. This means that development going forward should be more rapid and less resultant on the whims of keeping everything running properly on a codebase over a decade old.

Branding New

So, that explains the reasons why Cisco might want to refresh everything. But why the naming of the APs? Why not just rely on Aironet and keep that branding going forward?

Well, because they want to make end users believe that the network is the same no matter if it’s wired or wireless. They want buyers to believe that Catalyst stands for edge connectivity, no matter where that edge might be. And, unless they really screw up and start making us think these new APs are switches they’ll be able to pull off this branding exercise fairly well.

That’s because users have stopped caring about the wired versus wireless debate. Instead, they only care about speed and reliability. 802.11ax will help on both fronts, and Cisco wants to capitalize on that by making these new APs feel different. And the best way to do that is by rebranding them.

Wireless professionals don’t care about the name. Most of the time they just refer to the model number anyway. And while Cisco’s model numbering strategies seem to be getting a bit crowded in the 9000-level of things, this makes a lot of sense to distance themselves from their past. The old 802.11ac APs are still very viable and will likely be useful all they way until the end of their life. But when the time comes to pull them out, you’ll be retiring Aironet and Airespace along with them. Even if you didn’t realize those were the branding names of those APs.


Tom’s Take

Branding matters. Or it doesn’t. Either you love the name of the thing you’ve been using or you couldn’t care less. Whether it’s an iPhone or a car or an access point, everything has a name and a number attached to it. Cisco has decided, for better or worse, to unify the edge under the Catalyst name. Maybe it will stick and reduce confusion with customers. Maybe it will be hated enough that they’ll bring back the Aironet name in a couple of cycles to “get back to basics” as it were. But for now, the catalyst for change at Cisco leads to a unified edge solution.

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What Makes a Security Company?

When you think of a “security” company, what comes to mind? Is it a software house making leaps in technology to save us from DDoS attacks or malicious actors? Maybe it’s a company that makes firewalls or intrusion detection systems that stand guard to keep the bad people out of places they aren’t supposed to be. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Tradition Since Twenty Minutes Ago

What comes to mind when you think of a traditional security company? What kinds of technology do they make? Maybe it’s a firewall. Maybe it’s an anti-virus program. Or maybe it’s something else that you’ve never thought of.

Is a lock company like Schlage a security company? Perhaps they aren’t a “traditional” IT security company but you can guarantee that you’ve seen their products protecting data centers and IDF closets. What about a Halon system manufacturer? They may not be a first thought for security, but you can believe that a fire in your data center is going cause security issues. Also, I remember that I learned more about Halon and wet/dry pipe fire sprinkler systems from my CISSP study than anywhere else.

The problem with classifying security companies as “traditional” or “non-traditional” is that it doesn’t reflect the ways that security can move and change over the course of time. Even for something as cut-and-dried as anti-virus, tradition doesn’t mean a lot. Symantec is a traditional AV vendor according to most people. But the product that used to be called Norton Antivirus and the product suite that now includes is are worlds apart in functionality. Even though Symantec is “traditional”, what they do isn’t. And when you look at companies that are doing more advanced threat protection mechanisms like deception-based security or using AI and ML to detect patterns, the lines blur considerably.

But, it doesn’t obviate the fact that Symantec is a security company. Likewise, a company can be a security company even if they security isn’t their main focus. Like the Schlage example above, you can have security aspects to your business model without being totally and completely focused on security. And there’s no bigger example of this than a company like Cisco.

A Bridge Not Far Enough?

Cisco is a networking company right? Or are they a server company now? Maybe they’re a wireless company? Or do they do cloud now? There are many aspects to their business models, but very few people think of them as a security company. Even though they have firewalls, identity management, mobile security, Malware protection, VPN products, Email and Web Security, DNS Protection, and even Threat Detection. Does that mean they aren’t really a security company?

It could be rightfully pointed out that Cisco isn’t a security company because many of these technologies they have were purchased over the years from other companies. But does that mean that their solutions aren’t useful or maintained? As I was a doing research for this point, a friend pointed out the story of Cisco MARS and how it was purchased and ultimately retired by Cisco. However, the Cisco acquisition of Protego that netted them MARS happened in 2004. The EOL announcement was in 2011, and the final end-of-support was in 2016. Twelve years is a pretty decent lifetime for any security product.

The other argument is that Cisco doesn’t have a solid security portfolio because they have trouble integrating their products together. A common criticism of large companies like Cisco or Dell EMC is that it is too difficult to integrate their products together. This is especially true in situations where the technologies were acquired over time, just like Cisco.

However, is the converse true? Are standalone products easier to integrate? Is is more simple to take solutions from six different companies and integrate them together in some fashion? I’d be willing to be that outside of robust API support, most people will find that integrating security products from different vendors is as difficult (if not more so) than integrating products from one vendor. Does Cisco have a perfect integration solution? No, they don’t. But why should they? Why should it be expected that companies that acquire solutions immediate burn cycles to make everything integrate seamlessly. Sure, that’s on the roadmap. But integrations with other products is on everyone’s road map.

The last argument that I heard in my research is that Cisco isn’t a security company because they don’t focus on it. They’re a networking (or wireless or server) company. Yet, when you look at the number of people that Cisco has working in a specific business unit on a product, it can often be higher headcount that some independent firms have working on their solutions. Does that mean that Cisco doesn’t know what they’re doing? Or does it mean that individual organizations can have multiple focuses? That’s a question for the customers to answer.


Tom’s Take

I take issue with a definition of “traditional” versus non-traditional. For the reason that Apple is a traditional computer company and so is Wang Computers. Guess which one is still making computers? And even in the case of Apple, you could argue that their main line-of-business is mobile devices now. But, does anyone dispute Apple’s ability to make a laptop? Would a company that does nothing but make laptops be a “better” computer company? The trap of labels like that is that it ignores a significant amount of investment in business at the expense of a quick and easy label. What makes a company a computer company or a security company isn’t how they label themselves. It’s what they do with the technology they have.

Cisco and the Two-Factor Two-Step

In case you missed the news, Cisco announced yesterday that they are buying Duo Security. This is a great move on Cisco’s part. They need to beef up their security portfolio to compete against not only Palo Alto Networks but also against all the up-and-coming startups that are trying to solve problems that are largely being ignored by large enterprise security vendors. But how does an authentication vendor help Cisco?

Who Are You?

The world relies on passwords to run. Banks, email, and even your mobile device has some kind of passcode. We memorize them, write them down, or sometimes just use a password manager (like 1Password) to keep them safe. But passwords can be guessed. Trivial passwords are especially vulnerable. And when you factor in things like rainbow tables, it gets even scarier.

The most secure systems require you to have some additional form of authentication. You may have heard this termed as Two Factor Authentication (2FA). 2FA makes sure that no one is just going to be able to guess your password. The most commonly accepted forms of multi-factor authentication are:

  • Something You Know – Password, PIN, etc
  • Something You Have – Credit Card, Auth token, etc
  • Something You Are – Biometrics

You need at least two of these in order to successfully log into a system. Not having an additional form means you’re locked out. And that also means that the individual components of the scheme are useless in isolation. Knowing someone’s password without having their security token means little. Stealing a token without having their fingerprint is worthless.

But, people are starting to get more and more sophisticated with their attacks. One of the most popular forms of 2FA is the SMS authentication. It combines What You Know, in this case you password for your account, with Something You Have, which is a phone capable of receiving an SMS text message. When you log in, the authentication system sends an SMS to the authorized number and you have to type in the short-lived code to get into the system.

Ask Reddit how that worked out for them recently. A hacker (or group) was able to intercept the 2FA SMS codes for certain accounts and use both factors to log in and gather account data. It’s actually not as trivial as one might think to intercept SMS codes. It’s much, much harder to crack the algorithm of something like a security token. You’d need access to the source code and months to download everything. Like exactly what happened in 2011 to RSA.

In order for 2FA to work effectively, it needs to be something like an app on your mobile device that can be updated and changed when necessary to validate new algorithms and expire old credentials. It needs to be modern. It needs to be something that people don’t think twice about. That’s what Duo Security is all about. And, from their customer base and the fact that Cisco payed about $2.3 billion for them, they must do it well.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

How does Duo help Cisco? Well, first and foremost I hope that Duo puts an end to telnet access to routers forever. Telnet is the lazy way we enable remote access to devices. SSH is ten times better and a thousand times more secure. But setting it up properly to authenticate with certificate authentication is a huge pain. People want it to work when they need it to work. And tying it to a specific machine or location isn’t the easiest or more convenient thing.

Duo can give Cisco the ability to introduce real 2FA login security to their devices. IOS could be modified to require Duo Security app login authentication. That means that only users authorized to log into that device would get the login codes. No more guessed remote passwords!

Think about integrating Duo with Cisco ISE. That could be a huge boon for systems that need additional security. You could have groups of system that need 2FA and others that don’t. You could easily manage those lists and move systems in and out as needed. Or, you could start a policy that all systems needs 2FA and phase in the requirements over time to make people understand how important it is and give them time to download the app and get it set up. The ISE possibilities are endless.

One caveat is that Duo is a program that works with a large number of third party programs right now. Including integrations with Juniper Networks. As you can imagine, that list might change once Cisco takes control of the company. Some organizations that use Duo will probably see a price increase and will continue to offer the service to their users. Others, possibly Juniper as an example, may be frozen out as Cisco tries to keep the best parts of the company for their own use. If Cisco is smart, they’ll keep Duo available for any third party that wants to use the platform or integrate. It’s the best solution out there for solving this problem and everyone deserves to have good security.


Tom’s Take

Cisco buying a security company is no shock. They need the horsepower to compete in a world where firewalls are impediments at best and hackers have long since figured out how to get around static defenses. They need to get involved in software too. Security isn’t fought in silicon any more. It’s all in code and beefing up the software side of the equation. Duo gives them a component to compete in the broader authentication market. And the acquisition strategy is straight out of the Chambers playbook.

A plea to Cisco: Don’t lock everyone out of the best parts of Duo because you want to bundle them with recurring Cisco software revenue. Let people integrate. Take a page from the Samsung playbook. Just because you compete with Apple doesn’t mean you can’t make chips for them. Keep your competitors close and make they use your software and you’ll make more money than freezing everyone out and claiming your software is the best and least used of the bunch.

Back In The Saddle Of A Horse Of A Different Color

I’ve been asked a few times in the past year if I missed being behind a CLI screen or I ever got a hankering to configure some networking gear. The answer is a guarded “yes”, but not for the reason that you think.

Type Casting

CCIEs are keyboard jockeys. Well, the R&S folks are for sure. Every exam has quirks, but the R&S folks have quirky QWERTY keyboard madness. We spend a lot of time not just learning commands but learning how to input them quickly without typos. So we spend a lot of time with keys and a lot less time with the mouse poking around in a GUI.

However, the trend in networking has been to move away from these kinds of input methods. Take the new Aruba 8400, for instance. The ArubaOS-CX platform that runs it seems to have been built to require the least amount of keyboard input possible. The whole system runs with an API backend and presents a GUI that is a series of API calls. There is a CLI, but anything that you can do there can easily be replicated elsewhere by some other function.

Why would a company do this? To eliminate wasted effort. Think to yourself how many times you’ve typed the same series of commands into a switch. VLAN configuration, vty configs, PortFast settings. The list goes on and on. Most of us even have some kind of notepad that we keep the skeleton configs in so we can paste them into a console port to get a switch up and running quickly. That’s what Puppet was designed to replace!

By using APIs and other input methods, Aruba and other companies are hoping that we can build tools that either accept the minimum input necessary to configure switches or that we can eliminate a large portion of the retyping necessary to build them in the first place. It’s not the first command you type into a switch that kills you. It’s the 45th time you paste the command in. It’s the 68th time you get bored typing the same set of arguments from a remote terminal and accidentally mess this one up that requires a physical presence on site to reset your mistake.

Typing is boring, error prone, and costs significant time for little gain. Building scripts, programs, and platforms that take care of all that messy input for us makes us more productive. But it also changes the way we look at systems.

Bird’s Eye Views

The other reason why my fondness for keyboard jockeying isn’t as great as it could be is because of the way that my perspective has shifted thanks to the new aspects of networking technology that I focus on. I tell people that I’m less of an engineer now and more of an architect. I see how the technologies fit together. I see why they need to complement each other. I may not be able to configure a virtual link without documentation or turn up a storage LUN like I used to, but I understand why flash SSDs are important and how APIs are going to change things.

This goes all they way back to my conversations at VMunderground years ago about shifting the focus of networking and where people will go. You remember? The “ditch digger” discussion?

 

This is more true now than ever before. There are always going to be people racking and stacking. Or doing basic types of configuration. These folks are usually trained with basic knowledge of their task with no vision outside of their job role. Networking apprentices or journeymen as the case may be. Maybe one out of ten or one out of twenty of them are going to want to move up to something bigger or better.

But for the people that read blogs like this regularly the shift has happened. We don’t think in single switches or routers. We don’t worry about a single access point in a closet. We think in terms of systems. We configure routing protocols across multiple systems. We don’t worry about a single port VLAN issue. Instead, we’re trying to configure layer 2 DCI extensions or bring racks and pods online at the same time. Our visibility matters more than our typing skills.

That’s why the next wave of devices like the Aruba 8400 and the Software Defined Access things coming from Cisco are more important than simple checkboxes on a feature sheet. They remove the visibility of protocols and products and instead give us platforms that need to be configured for maximum effect. The gap between the people that “rack and stack” and those that build the architecture that runs the organization has grown, but only because the middle ground of administration is changing so fast that it’s tough to keep up.


Tom’s Take

If I were to change jobs tomorrow I’m sure that I could get back in the saddle with a couple of weeks of hard study. But the question I keep asking myself is “Why would I want to?” I’ve learned that my value doesn’t come from my typing speed or my encyclopedia of networking command arguments any more. It comes from a greater knowledge of making networking work better and integrate more tightly into the organization. I’m a resource, not a reactionary. And so when I look to what I would end up doing in a new role I see myself learning more and more about Python and automation and less about what new features were added in the latest OSPF release on Cisco IOS. Because knowing how to integrate technology at a high level is more valuable to everyone than just knowing the commands to type to turn the lights on.

Not The Cisco of John Chambers Anymore

I just got back from Cisco Live 2017 last night and I had a blast at the show. There was a lot of discussion about new architectures, new licensing models, and of course, Tech Field Day Extra. However, one of the most interesting topics went largely under the radar. I think we’re fully in the transition of Cisco away from being the Company of John Chambers.

Steering A Tall Ship

John Chambers wasn’t the first CEO of Cisco. But he’s the one that most people would recognize. He transformed the company into the juggernaut that it is today. He watched Cisco ascend to the leader in the networking space and helped it transform into a company that embraced voice, security, and even servers and compute as new business models.

John’s Cisco is a very unique animal. It’s not a single company. It’s a collection of many independent companies with their own structures and goals all competing with each other for resources. If John decided that UCS was more important to his goals this quarter, he shifted some of the support assets to focus on that business unit. It was a featured product, complete with healthy discounts to encourage user adoption.

Product lines that didn’t perform as well were usually shown the door or swept under the rug. Even larger, well-publicized acquisitions tended to disappear under the spotlight of harsh criticism. Flip Video, Cius, and even Umi are not only lackluster products, but I bet you even forgot about one or two of them. John didn’t like highlighting failures any more than any of us, but the failures were often highlighted in spite of their stellar up-front marketing and sudden disappearance.

You can’t run the ship forever, though. Eventually, John knew he would need to step down. He had courted many, many heirs apparent in his time at Cisco. There were literally a dozen or more people inside the organization that saw themselves as the next CEO of the company. And when the time came to name his successor, Chuck Robbins was not the first name on a lot of lists. But his ascension to the throne of the networking powerhouse is turning heads.

Turning The Tall Ship

By all accounts, Cisco is a company in transition. Beset on all sides by cheaper merchant silicon, an industry shift to software-focused architecture, and several upstart companies featuring the best and brightest Cisco talent from years past. Cisco is facing multiple challenges that would have been singularly laughable a decade ago.

Part of this challenge comes from the reliance on the hardware model that John Chambers so proudly touted. John loves hardware. There’s margin in hardware. Hardware occupies space. It reminds people of the importance of things. And hardware eventually needs to be replaced. These all speak to the model of a company like the old IBM run by Tom Watson.

But Chuck Robbins sees Cisco differently. His push toward software is turning the ship away from dwindling hardware margins. The Intuitive Network architecture is setting Cisco up to rely more on software innovation than ever before. These are the kinds of organizational shifts that we’ve seen IBM go through as they focused on becoming more aligned with the direction of the industry. But these massive changes aren’t the only things that show how Cisco has transformed.

John Chambers loved the idea of having many, many business units. They were like sworn vassals pledging their loyalty to a distant king. The more voices showing the allegiance, the better. And those vassals could be courted as the possible successor to the throne should the prove worthy. So, when Chuck ascended to the head of the table, he showed his distaste for the vassal approach. He quietly allowed his competitors for the top job to exit gracefully on their terms. That’s not uncommon in situations where the throne is hotly contested.

Chuck also started collapsing those dozens of business units into organizational structure that makes sense. Not marketing wrappers, but real changes. Where before Networking and Security were two ships passing the night, they now run under the control of one person, David Goeckeler. The old Cisco system would have had two or more people reporting back to Chambers. Now, Robbins has one person to talk to about the direction of both of these key pillars of Cisco’s product lines.

A curious appearance of the shift in organizational focus was visible at Cisco Live 2017. In years past, a vice president has served as “host” for the event. They introduce the keynotes and give statistics about the attendance and other key facts. They also did the “interview” of the celebrity keynote speaker on Thursday. This year, there was no host. Chuck came on stage for his keynote without introduction. He did his speech and closed the session without anyone else on stage aside from his guests. On Thursday, he was the one interviewing the celebrity speaker, Brian Cranston.

It may not sound like much, but all of these little things add up to a very interesting change in Cisco’s organization. Chuck Robbins is going to take a much different role than Chambers. He’s going to be closer to the products. He’s going to be more involved in decisions. He’s going to be the one driving the ship rather than waiting for someone to execute decisions he’s suggested. Will that be enough to help Cisco keep their position in the networking space? Only time will tell.


Tom’s Take

I’ve said before that in the sports world, you never want to be the coach that follows the legend. Everything you do will be scrutinized through their lens and compared negatively. Some very good people can emerge from the shadow of their predecessor, but most are doomed to spend very good years being compared unfairly to the myth of the past.

At first, it looked like Chuck Robbins was headed down the same path. But with the major internal changes, the focus on software instead of hardware, and his more hands-on approach to management, I think we’re quickly going to find ourselves speaking of Cisco in the same way we refer to IBM today as “Not Tom Watson’s IBM”. I hope that the Cisco of Chuck Robbins succeeds and thrives so that in the future people will refer not to Chuck Robbins as the successor of John Chambers but instead refer to John Chambers as the guy who came before the Great Chuck Robbins.

Subscription Defined Networking

Cisco’s big announcement this week ahead of Cisco Live was their new Intent-based Networking push. This new portfolio does include new switching platforms in the guise of the Catalyst 9000 series, but the majority of the innovation is coming in the software layer. Articles released so far tout the ability of the network to sense context, provide additional security based on advanced heuristics, and more. But the one thing that seems to be getting little publicity is the way you’re going to be paying for software going forward.

The Bottom Line

Cisco licensing has always been an all-or-nothing affair for the most part. You buy a switch and you have two options – basic L2 switching or everything the switch supports. Routers are similar. Through the early 15.x releases, Cisco routers could be loaded with an advanced image that ran every service imaginable. Those early 15.x releases gave us some attempts at role-based licensing for packet, voice, and security device routers. However, those efforts were rolled back due to customer response.

Shockingly, voice licensing has been the most progressive part of Cisco’s licensing model for a while now. CallManager 4.x didn’t even bother. Hook things up and they work. 5.x through 9.x used Device License Units (DLUs) to help normalize the cost of expensive phones versus their cheaper lobby and break room brethren. But even this model soon gave way to the current Unified Licensing models that attempt to bundle phones with software applications to mimic how people actually communicate in today’s offices.

So where does that leave Cisco? Should they charge for every little thing you could want when you purchase the device? Or should Cisco leave it wide open to the world and give users the right to decide how best to use their software? If John Chambers had still been in charge of Cisco, I know the answer would have been very similar to what we’ve seen in the past. Uncle John hated the idea of software revenue cannibalizing their hardware sales. Like many stalwarts of the IT industry, Chambers believed that hardware was king and software was an afterthought.

Pay As You Go

But Chuck Robbins has different ideas. Alongside the new capabilities of Cisco’s Intuitive Network plan they have also introduced a software subscription model. Now, if you want to use all these awesome new features for the future of the network according to Cisco you are going to pay for them. And you’re going to pay every year you use them.

It’s not that radical of a shift in mindset if you look at the market today. Cable subscriptions are going away in favor of specialized subscriptions to specific content. Custom box companies will charge you a monthly fee to ship you random (and not-so-random) items. You can even set up a subscription to buy essential items from Amazon and Walmart and have them shipped to your home regularly.

People don’t mind paying for things that they use regularly. And moving the cost model away from capital expenditure (CapEx) to an operational expenditure (OpEx) model makes all the sense in the world for Cisco. Studies from industry companies like Infinity Research have said that Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas) growth is going to be around 46% over the next 5 years. That growth money is coming from organizations shift CapEx budget to OpEx budget. For traditional vendors like Cisco, EMC, and Dell, it’s increasingly important for them to capture that budget revenue as it moves into a new pool designed to be spent a month or year at a time instead of once every five to seven years.

The end goal for Cisco is to replace those somewhat frequent hardware expenditures with more regular revenue streams from OpEx budgets. If you’re nodding your head and saying, “That’s pretty obvious…” you are likely from the crowd that couldn’t understand why Cisco kept doubling down on bigger, badder switching during the formative years of SDN. Cisco’s revenue model has always looked a lot like IBM and EMC. They need to sell more boxes more frequently to hit targets. However, SDN is moving the innovation away from the hardware, where Cisco is comfortable, and into the software, where Cisco has struggled as of late.

Software development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t occur because you give away features designed to entice customers into buying a Nexus 9000 instead of a Nexus 6000. Software development only happens when people are paying money for the things you are developing. Sometimes that means that you get bonus features that they figure out in the process of making the main feature. But it surely means that the people focused on making the software want to get it right the first time instead of having to ship endless patches to make it work right eventually. Because if your entire revenue model comes from software, it had better be good software that people want to buy and continue to pay for.


Tom’s Take

I think Chuck Robbins is dragging Cisco into the future kicking and screaming. He’s streamlined the organization by getting rid of the multitude of “pretenders to the throne” and tightening up the rest of the organization from a collection of competing business units into a logically organized group of product lines that can be marketed. The shift toward a forward-looking software strategy built on recurring revenue that isn’t dependent on hardware is the master stroke. If you ever had any doubts about what kind of ship Chuck was going to sail, this is your indicator.

In seven years, we’re not going to be talking about Cisco in the same way we did before. Much like we don’t talk about IBM like we used to. The IBM that exists today bears little resemblance to Tom Watson’s company of the past. I think that the Cisco of the future will bear the same superficial resemblance to John Chamber’s Cisco as well. And that’s for the better.

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.