It was recently written up in Fortune magazine as computing's next superpower, to be thought of in the same light as Microsoft and Intel. This is certainly how Cisco would like to see itself. While the company shies away from stating intentions to dominate the marketplace, the company makes no attempt to hide its desire to be Number One. ARN's Brad Howarth attended the recent Cisco Networkers '97 conference. While there he spoke to Keith Fox, vice-president, corporate marketing, Cisco Systems, about four of the strategies the company is employing to push itself ahead of the competitionCisco Connection OnlineTalk to any Cisco representative, and it is not long before they mention that Cisco's number one measure of performance is customer satisfaction. The company even pays bonuses dependent on whether its customer satisfaction index has improved over time.
Hence, it is not surprising to see the company engaged in numerous activities to ensure that that index is always climbing.
One of those initiatives has been the Cisco Connection Online (CCO - www.cisco.com), the company's extensive Web site that contains a wealth of information on products and service offerings, along with product ordering services to direct customers and dealers.
Fox describes the CCO as one of the class of new "networked applications" that Cisco is now evangelising.
He says such applications will emerge to provide network-based information to assist a company's core business. In the case of Cisco, the CCO enables the company to better communicate with its partners and customers.
"One of the things that we noticed a few years ago was a high degree of frustration in understanding what things cost, how to configure them, placing an order, etc," said Fox.
"And as you might imagine (post-CCO) the customer satisfaction rate went up, not only with our partners placing orders this way but with the customers that do deal with us directly."
Fox says the aim is to have over 30 per cent of all Cisco's orders transacted electronically over CCO by the end of August. "If you look at the time from when we launched and the percentage on a weekly basis, we're really on that track." The site itself now has around 55,000 registered users, including customers and partners.
The SMEs are coming
Although not previously a focus, one of the areas that will leverage CCO is the small to medium enterprise marketplace. CCO has traditionally been the domain of enterprise customers and VARs, but with Cisco opening up distribution to smaller resellers Fox sees an opportunity to utilise it further down the chain.
"As Cisco is becoming more visible we have small to medium business and consumers to some extent coming to our Web site," he said. "So the number of pages that we're serving up for people to get presales information about potential networking products for their small business is clearly accelerated at the guest level."
Fox says that so far Cisco has not had a set of applications at the CCO that have prompted small and medium businesses to register. But new initiatives designed for the distribution marketplace, such as Packaged Services (see page 69), may change the balance of this equation.
The Cisco-ready PC?
Integral to Cisco is IOS (Internetwork Operating System) - its software platform for the delivery of services into the network.
While competitors have labelled IOS as proprietary, Fox sees it as the fine-tuning that allows Cisco to get peak network performance out of standards-based devices, and allowing it to introduce new technologies to customers today, while waiting for standards approval.
An interesting development with IOS is that of incorporating IOS technologies into a network client device, be it a PC or an NC. Fox says that with PCs becoming ever more powerful, and more and more connections being made at 100Mbit/sec, the need to be able to deliver service that meets user demands is becoming more and more crucial. These needs might include better security at the client device, or the ability to reserve bandwidth for multimedia applications.
Fox says networks are moving to the point where the client device has to be intelligent enough to demand resources, hence: "There are certain IOS technologies and features that make sense to also reside in the client for the definition of an end-to-end service provision, or to allow for networked applications to be built."
Fox says the IOS technologies that will be appropriate for networked devices are dependent very much on whether the device hits a LAN or a WAN as its first point of contact. "They're all Internet appliances, and they would employ different IOS technologies. So will there be a number a vendors creating these things? Absolutely, and will some of the branded system vendors that dwell in the PC space drop in? Certainly." He believes this is not something Cisco can do alone, and therefore it must partner with the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Compaq.
Routing will not die
Despite what several of its competitors say, Cisco is adamant that routing, the technology it dominates, will not go away. According to Fox, it is simply a case of redefining the descriptions to fit emerging models. "You'll hear a lot of competitors take a shot at us because we have such a router heritage, and they'll try to spin it around this concept of switches versus routers."
Fox says this move to take Layer 3 technology, traditionally the intelligence behind routers, and move it to the switch is causing confusion. "A lot of people like to talk about routing as going away, and switching as emerging. Routing will never go away. Nobody is saying that Layer 3 services, which is routing, is going away.
"People are confusing what are called 'routers' and 'switches' with 'routing' and 'switching'. The fact is that we have routers that have LAN capabilities on them, for both wide area and local area connections. We have Layer 2 switches that are LAN-based, but also have Layer 3 routing capabilities in them, to put wide area connections on them."
Fox says the platforms are starting to mix and merge. "So we want a bunch of different platforms that have different price points, functionality, port densities, etc. If I'm a small business I don't want to spend money for 16 ports - I might only have eight people there. But I need local area connections and wide area connections."