Last month Cisco Systems Australia hosted its annual Networkers Australia '97 conference at the Royal Pines Resort on the Gold Coast. Primarily a technology-focused event, Networkers was attended by a large number of Cisco's integration partners. ARN's Brad Howarth was there for the event, and spoke to Stephen DeWitt Cisco's vice-president of network management, about Cisco's network management strategy, how it will help customers and the role that resellers will play in implementing it.
ARN: What role do resellers play in selling the concepts of network management, and how are you supporting them?
Stephen DeWitt: They play a huge role on a couple of different fronts. Partners are the end-point delivery vehicle for our entire product line, and play a key role in the integration process of a number of different technologies from the client to the server.
When you think about network management, in its purest sense it is centred on the ability to manage application performance across a network. Take when someone's running an application that runs his or her business. That application resides on a server, is delivered on a client, and travels through the network.
And what a lot of the integrators and VARs provide is the ability to integrate the different management tools needed to be able to manage that application's performance and security.
What we provide is a family of products that our integrators and VARs can use to integrate with other tools and other management platforms.
So I think that today, given the complexity of networking environments right now, partners and integrators and VARs in general play a critical role in that whole integrator process.
ARN: Is your management focus directed more at the enterprise level than the SME level?
SD: No, I wouldn't over-generalise it. Certainly at the enterprise level you're dealing with a different set of complexity issues. But the network in general is the great equaliser for smaller enterprises or SOHO businesses. There is still a fair amount of complexity there, and there are training issues, support issues, etc.
Channel partners extend our reach to provide those support services. There are different classes of reseller partnerships, at the smaller enterprise level as well as the large enterprise and in the carrier space. Networking is complex, and the support issues are immense, and we rely very heavily on our partners to help us in that process.
ARN: What weighting is given to network management issues in the training that Cisco provides to partners?
SD: It hasn't been historically that strong, primarily because the network management that we provided has been very much focused at the device level. And as a result the training that we've provided to our partners has been focused at that level. What customers are looking for and what they are trying to accomplish on the network has meant that network management has had to shift from being device-centric to a more end-to-end view. It means the ability to look across all these different devices, and to allow a customer to set the sort of service levels or policies they want to manage those networks.
That has caused a right turn for the whole networking industry, in developing management applications that allow for end-to-end visibility. If you think of all of the objects in the network, a lot of different companies and a lot of different management products are involved.
And for a customer to digest all of that, and even for a partner to digest all of that on behalf of a customer, is really tough, because a lot of this stuff doesn't work well with one another. But now we're seeing the maturity of underlying standards that allow all of these devices to in essence be "genericised" so that you can do true end-to-end application management.
It's absolutely critical for those integrators that are adding value and management to stay very much up to speed on the changes that are happening, because many of these resellers are creating their own value-added applications that leverage the management tools that people like Cisco make. So in as much as we're evolving our management product line they need to do the same.
ARN: There is an attitude among network professionals that they no longer have time to do any policy-based management. What is Cisco doing to help users and partners in this area?
SD: I can tell you that the lion's share of our larger enterprise customers manage by exception. What happens is this: you've got a topology of your network, you set thresholds, and then you look for events that are outside normal parameters that you set. In essence this is managing in a reactive way. You're not proactively evaluating the way that you design your network. And there's no doubt that the majority of management has been reactive.
Cisco acquired a company called Netsys, and one of the things that Netsys does is focus on two key areas - productivity and performance. In essence it is being able to look at how a network is configured, and then being able to take performance criteria that you've set up and look out over those devices. You are then able to meet the various types of service levels or policies that you want. And if not, you can determine what you need to do to guarantee them.
ARN: Is there a way, then, for networkers to move from reactive to proactive management?
SD: You can't be proactive unless you're looking at the entire scope of your network. Being proactive and looking at your router network or switch network or a combination of the two is only a part of it. You also have to incorporate your clients and how you've segmented your network; you have to look at your server environment; you have to be able to understand the changing dynamics of applications.
When you start pushing video traffic across a data network, the characteristics of that traffic are very different to e-mail and file transfers - it just has a different impact on a router. And when you start getting technologies where you're dynamically allocating the resource of the network to individuals, you enter a whole new level of management complexity.
To be honest, there isn't a nice handbook that I can give you, because we've never done it before. No-one's ever done it before. So we are boldly embarking on a whole new reality in terms of network management. But the bottom line is that network management will always boil down to a question of what the device is doing and how you get more out of that device.
I think that over time we will get to a point where devices will be dynamically configure-based on a policy set by a central policy server.
ARN: Most networking vendors are now promoting network management and policy-based systems as key strategies in network development. Is management the killer application for networking at the moment?
SD: In terms of the visible customer utility, management has to be a key component of the whole solution. We talk a lot about IOS (Cisco's Internetwork Operating System), and IOS is fundamentally the enabling technology that makes this all happen. It is the platform across the entire infrastructure that allows us to deliver services in the network. But more often than not those technologies are invisible to the network operations manager.
Networks are dynamic entities now - the network you're building in April of 1997 will not scale for the applications that you're going to throw at it six months later. So you have to be building a network that is fundamentally architected to change constantly. And that constant state of change has to be managed.
And since network management, like any management, is cultural, the tools that are there to help you manage your network have to be able to react depending on what it is you're trying to accomplish. And that's why you're seeing the emergence of a lot of Web-based management, management built on a Java infrastructure.
In general the network management industry will be one of the more glamorous application areas, because all of the key stake- holders in the network management arena are all rearchitecting their products to take advantage of a lot of this new, modern technology. Cisco is completely rearchitecting our management framework. It's all Java-based, it's using technologies like Castanet, which allows us to create "channels" of management depending on what you're specifically trying to accomplish. You can pull down modules and have them instantaneously appear on your network.
Building network architecture in 1997 is a heck of a lot different than building architecture was just two years ago. And that's going to be a big benefit to customers, because that too will also get a lot of the proprietary mumbo jumbo out.