Cisco wants a central role in your service-oriented architecture plans, and is proceeding in that direction, whether its partners like it or not.
Cisco used its World Wide Analyst Conference to cast itself as a services and applications vendor, unveiling a broad strategy for tying all its enterprise technology into a services model. To that end, Cisco is expected to announce a set of software tools aimed at letting customers monitor and measure application performance on a network - a far leap from its history of selling hardware and pushing packets.
The new products, and the company's Services Oriented Network Architecture (SONA) plan, promise to reduce corporate costs and move customers toward virtualized services, including security, voice, mobility, applications, management, processing and storage - with the network as the common facet.
Some observers say Cisco's moves put it on a collision course with most of its key application-related partners: IBM, Microsoft, HP and CA. Analysts say this type of toe-stepping and outright clashing is one of the biggest challenges for Cisco as it asserts its role in applications and SOA beyond its perceived image as a provider of network pipes.
In a series of presentations from Cisco execs last week, the company continued its mantra of 2005, that the network is the strategic center for where IT intelligence should reside in enterprises.
"The network will evolve into the platform" on which enterprises will build IT intelligence and application services, Cisco CEO John Chambers told a group of 400 financial and industry analysts. He emphasized the growing SOA approaches companies are planning as the key driver for Cisco. "It's the first time in history that technology advances are determining the future business strategies of companies."
To that end, Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's chief development officer, identified Application Network Services (ANS) as Cisco's next Advanced Technology - or potential US$1 billion annual revenue stream. ANS wraps all of Cisco's application-focused technologies under one umbrella - Layer 4-7 switching, WAN optimization, application acceleration and its Application Oriented Networking (AON) technologies around XML and SOA.
In a broader sense, ANS will be part of Cisco's amorphous SONA strategy. SONA will encompass all of Cisco's enterprise technologies - wired network infrastructure, voice, applications, security and mobility. Giancarlo said the SONA initiative will be on the level of past major Cisco initiatives, such as Cisco Blue - where IBM and Cisco network technologies were blended - and the company's late 1990s AVVID push for voice, video and data convergence.
"It's one of the first real restructurings of the way computers operate in the past several decades," he said.
The idea behind SONA is to pool servers, storage, processing and applications, with the network layer acting as an intelligence fabric tying everything together.
With this, IT "becomes just a bunch of processors and disks," tied together with intelligent network gear. Hardware and services virtualization will rely heavily on Cisco's new data-center and storage technologies, such as its TopSpin-based InfiniBand gear, as well as its AON technologies that accelerate XML and Web services traffic. The promise is that customers moving to SOA can save money and complexity by moving parts of SOA technology into the network - such as some tasks done by middleware and other server-based applications.
Reception of the strategy by analysts was mixed, as many said the details were unclear about how Cisco routers and switches equate to Web services and SOA. Cisco also must tread with caution, observers said, as it seems likely the vendor will clash with key partners the more it emphasizes the network intelligence over server intelligence.
"If you're going to promote SONA as a solution to SOA migration, you sort of have to describe how you're doing the SOA migration part of it," says Thomas Nolle, president of telecom consulting company CIMI. "The problem with Cisco having an SOA strategy is that unless they articulate it razor sharp, it's going to look like a threat to their partners," he says.
Already, vendors that have close allegiances and partnerships with Cisco are girding for tough new competition from a friend.
"Cisco says they can take care of XML and HTML all inside the network, but why can't that be done right in the server chipset?" says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects. This is happening on the other side, he says, as Intel recently acquired Sarvega, a maker of XML acceleration chips, and IBM bought DataPower, which makes hardware and software for accelerating XML and SOA traffic.
"The gray area is getting darker and darker and wider and wider," in terms of what roles Cisco's SONA plays and what roles SOA efforts by IBM, HP, Microsoft and others play in enterprise architectures, Dzubeck adds.
"It's a philosophy issue," he says. "you have to decide whether the network should be the center of the IT universe," as opposed to the applications and tools normally provided by IT vendors.
The first real volley in such a fight could come with Cisco's expected launch of its Network Application Performance Analysis (NAPA) products. NAPA uses technology acquired with Sheer Networks, OEM licenses with Opnet and Corvil, and in-house technologies. Cisco built four products that the company says will better identify application-performance issues for network managers. The tools also will make it easier to pinpoint the network cause of the application slowdown. The four products work independently, but also are more tightly integrated to work together, Cisco says.
"Cisco is sending a clear message to the market that they are very serious about getting into network- and application-performance management," says George Hamilton, a senior analyst with The Yankee Group. "This is a direct shot at the HP OpenView, IBM [Tivoli Enterprise Console] and other traditional management tools out there. Cisco put a lot of resources behind this internally."
In the short term, Cisco products that alert network managers about application performance could help performance-management software makers InfoVista, NetQoS and NetScout. Each goes to great lengths to incorporate knowledge of Cisco gear into its software. With Cisco providing its own standards-based management tools, it will be easier for vendors to manage Cisco networks without having to overhaul their software, Hamilton says.
But the push is not without its challenges. For example, Cisco may have to sell to systems administrators, as application performance in many IT shops is directly linked to specific servers.
"Cisco is a huge networking equipment vendor, and trying to change that mind-set in the market will be tough to do," Hamilton says. "Cisco wants to position the network as the platform for data center automation going forward."