Not satisfied with being the pre-eminent network hardware vendor on the planet, Cisco leaps to the top of the stack with its new Application-Oriented Networking strategy. If the network giant succeeds, competitors might view AON to mean "All Over Now" as Cisco's lock on most corporate networks could turn into a stranglehold.
For a company such as Cisco, future well-being is tightly coupled with growth. And when you own the lion's share of the existing "lower stack" market, you really can only find that growth by creating a new market and then dominating it. The notion of having network gear that interacts directly with applications is not an incremental approach at broadening a space, but goes right to the goal of establishing Cisco not just as a key player in IT networks, but crucial in IT -- period.
Perhaps Cisco was motivated by its recent success in penetrating the VOIP application arena against a telephony/PBX industry that had gained locks on their accounts, in some cases decades before Cisco even came into existence. If it could make progress under those circumstances then "create and dominate" in a new space might seem like a relative breeze. While "content" networks have been around for a few years and application-oriented firms - usually focused on XML -- such as Forum Systems, Datapower and Sarvega have gotten a foothold in the industry, CIO-awareness of their brands and offerings is nothing compared with Cisco.
Now, just to keep up with Cisco, will companies such as Alcatel and Nortel be almost forced to try to snap up one of these firms?What is there to read between the lines here? Is it a tacit admission by Cisco that its fundamental value proposition has been seriously eroded in recent years? Is the company admitting that Layer 2/Layer 3 gear from any number of vendors can provide a decent corporate infrastructure? In Cisco's AON press release, the obligatory analyst quote from Gartner speaks disparagingly of the "conventional architecture, [where] intelligent application systems interact through a low-function, fairly 'dumb' network."
Considering that most networks are Cisco-architected networks, he is saying, "Well, there is nothing special about any network -- until you make it smart." Isn't he? Then what have we been concerned about all these years? Nevermind.
That said, there are several scary elements for vendors and end users about the AON strategy. For starters, while the press release is gargantuan at more than 1,800 words, one word you won't find in it is "open" - as in open standards. The word "standard" does appear twice but only for referencing data exchange standards in vertical markets.So in this world of IETF, ITU and IEEE -- Cisco is going it alone. The "Industry Support" section of the release lists some nine application vendors that support the program but Cisco apparently doesn't feel that having even a single other network vendor on board matters.
Furthermore, Cisco doesn't state that it will make any of its "transformation" logic public.So what could be coming down the pike? The ultimate vendor lockout. With Cisco selling top brass on the AON notion and then being the sole supplier of AON-capable switches and routers, the buying decision becomes, perhaps, a simple AON or no-AON one. Scary thought.
Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company. He can be reached at ktolly@ tolly.com.