We Are Number Two!


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.

Tom’s Take

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.

I Can Fix Gartner


I’ve made light of my issues with Gartner before. From mild twitching when the name is mentioned to outright physical acts of dismissal. Aneel Lakhani did a great job on an episode of the Packet Pushers dispelling a lot of the bad blood that most people have for Gartner. I listened and my attitude toward them softened somewhat. It wasn’t until recently that I I finally realized that my problem isn’t necessarily with Gartner. It’s with those that use Gartner as a blunt instrument against me. Simply put, Gartner has a perception problem.

Because They Said So

Gartner produces a lot of data about companies in a number technology related spaces. Switches, firewalls, and wireless devices are all subject to ranking and data mining by Gartner analysts. Gartner takes all that data and uses it to give form to a formless part of the industry. They take inquiries from interested companies and produce a simple ranking for them to use as a yardstick for measuring how one cloud hosting provider ranks against another. That’s a good and noble cause. It’s what happens afterwards that shows what data in the wrong hands can do.

Gartner makes their reports available to interested parties for a price. The price covers the cost of the analysts and the research they produce. It’s no different that the work that you or I do. Because this revenue from the reports is such a large percentage of Gartner’s income, the only folks that can afford it are large enterprise customers or vendors. Enterprise customers are unlikely to share that information with anyone outside their organization. Vendors, on the other hand, are more than willing to share that information with interested parties. Provided that those parties offer up their information as a lead generation exercise and the Gartner report is favorable to the company. Vendors that aren’t seen as a leader in their particular slice of the industry aren’t particularly keen on doing any kind of advertising for their competitors. Leaders, on the other hand, are more than willing to let Gartner do their dirty work for them. Often, that conversation goes like this:

Vendor: You should buy our product. We’re the best.
Customer: Why are you the best? Are you the fastest or the lowest cost? Why should I buy your product?
Vendor: We’re the best because Gartner says so.

The only way that users outside the large enterprises see these reports is when a vendor publishes them as the aforementioned lead generation activity. This skews things considerably for a lot of potential buyers. This disparity becomes even more insulting when the club in question is a polygon.

Troubling Trigonometry

Gartner reports typically include a lot of data points. Those data points tell a story about performance, cost, and value. People don’t like reading data point. They like graphs and charts. In order to simplify the data into something visual, Gartner created their Magic Quadrant (MQ). The MQ distills the entire report into four squares of ranking. The MQ is the real issue here. It’s the worst kind of graph. It doesn’t have any labels on either axis. There’s no way to rank the data points without referring to the accompanying report. However, so many readers rarely read the report that the MQ becomes the *only* basis for comparison.

How much better is Company A at service provider routing than Company B? An inch? Half an inch? $2 billion in revenue? $2,000 gross margin? This is the key data that allows the MQ to be built. Would you know where to find it in the report if you had to? Most readers don’t. They take the MQ as the gospel truth and the only source of data. And the vendors love to point out that they are further to the top and right of the quadrant than their competitors. Sometimes, the ranking seems arbitrary. What makes a company be in the middle of the leaders quadrant versus toward the middle of the graph? Are all companies in the leaders quadrant ranked and placed against each other only? Or against all companies outside the quadrant? Details matter.

Assisting the Analysis

Gartner can fix their perception problems. It’s not going to be easy though. They have the same issue as the Consumer’s Union, producer of Consumer Reports. Where the CU publishes a magazine that has no advertising, they use donations and subscription revenues to offset operating costs. You don’t see television or print ads with Consumer Reports reviews pasted all over them. That’s because the Consumer’s Union specifically forbids their inclusion for commercial purposes.

Gartner needs to take a similar approach if they want to fix the issues with how they’re seen by others. Sell all the reports you want to end users that want to know the best firewall to buy. You can even sell those reports to the firewall vendors themselves. But the vendors should be forbidden from using those reports to resell their products. The integrity you gain from that stance may not offset the loss of vendor revenue right away. But it will gain you customers in the long run that will respect your stance refusing the misuse of Gartner reports as 3rd party advertising copy.

Put a small disclaimer at the bottom of every report: “Gartner provides analysis for interested parties only. Any use of this information as a sales tool or advertising instrument is unintended and prohibited.” That shows what the purpose of the report is about as well as discouraging use simply to sell another hundred widgets.

Another idea that might work to dispel advertising usage of the MQ is releasing last year’s report for little to no cost after 12 months.  That way, the small-to-medium enterprises gain access to the information without sacrificing their independence from a particular vendor.  I don’t think there will be any loss of revenue from these reports, as those that typically buy them will do so within 6-8 months of the release.  That will give the vendors very little room to leverage information that should be in the public domain anyway.  If you feel bad for giving that info away, charge a nominal printing fee of $5 or something like that.  Either way, you’ll blunt the advertising advantage quickly and still accomplish your goal of being seen as the leader in information gathering.

Tom’s Take

I don’t have to whinny like a horse every time someone says Gartner. It’s become a bit of legend by now. What I do take umbrage with is vendors using data points intended for customers to rank purchases and declare that the non-labeled graph of those data points is the sole arbiter of winners and losers in the industry. What if your company doesn’t fit neatly into a Magic Quadrant category? It’s hard to call a company like Palo Alto a laggard in traditional firewalls when they have something that is entirely non-traditional. Reader discretion is key. Use the data in the report as your guide, not the pretty pictures with dots all over them. Take that data and fold it into your own analysis. Don’t take anyone’s word for granted. Make your own decisions. Then, give feedback. Tell people what you found and how accurate those Gartner reports were in making your decision. Don’t give your email address to a vendor that wants to harvest it simply to gain access to the latest report that (surprisingly) show them to be the best. When the advertising angle dries up, vendors will stop using Garter to sell their wares. When that day comes, Gartner will have a real opportunity to transcend their current image and become something more. And that’s a fix worth implementing.