Cisco's CTO Judith Estrin on networking futures

Cisco Systems' acquisition in March of Precept Software, a provider of multimedia networking products, also brought long time data networking pioneer Judith Estrin to the company. Formerly president of Precept, Estrin was appointed Cisco's chief technology officer when the acquisition went through. She recently spoke with IDG's Stephen Lawson about some of the challenges facing the industryLawson: As well as its traditional data networking rivals, Cisco is now competing with traditional voice companies like Lucent and Nortel. How will you compete?

Estrin: The reason Cisco is competing more with the players you discussed is really twofold. One is that the world is converging and that the old paradigm was separate networks for telephony and for data. The new paradigm is that we're looking at virtually everything as digital and everything as packets.

If you look at where Cisco's roots are, we really understand moving packets and moving digital data. We are not having to go through the transition of having thoughts in circuits, and figuring out the packet world.

The other reason we're suddenly competing with these folks is they've realised how interesting the data world is now, as networking has become more mission-critical.

Lawson: What is inhibiting the use of the Internet for new applications?

Estrin: There are three things that are needed to use the Internet in different ways. One is bandwidth. And it's not just bandwidth in the core, it's bandwidth to the home. The technologies are now there, and it's a question of deploying them.

The second thing is reliability. If you looked at the Internet industry five years ago, we clearly were not designing [for the requirements of] mission-critical applications. But that's not true today. Are we 100 per cent there? Probably not. Are we close? Yes.

The last thing is security. A lot of the security products are there today, but one of the missing pieces is, how easy are they to use? One of the advances that you'll see over the coming year is [in] how you set security policies and how you make it easy to use and manage your security systems.

Lawson: What is needed to move beyond the Internet's current "best effort" prioritisation capabilities?

Estrin: Many of the technologies are there. WDM [Wave Division Multiplexing] is very important, high-speed routers are very important. But I don't think there is some big megaswitch. I think that the core routers need to continually be faster.

I guess it's an evolution from where we are, continuing to have faster and faster core routers and then being able to aggregate.

Lawson: What are the benefits of optical networking for the enterprise?

Estrin: The theory is that enterprises get cheaper bandwidth, because if the service provider can get more bandwidth at lower costs, then they ought to be able to pass that to their enterprise customers.

Lawson: How will WDM and ATM coexist in carrier networks?

Estrin: It all depends on when you went to the market. People who are doing multiservice integration today are deploying ATM because you don't yet have all of the capabilities in IP to give you what you need, and because your voice and video is still primarily analog.

If you were building a totally new infrastructure today, where all your voice was digital, all your video was digital, and everything could be over IP, then ATM wouldn't play as important a role and you might go directly to IP over WDM.

Lawson: How important is Version 6 of the IP specification, IPv6, and how long before it plays a role?

Estrin: When I have my purist head on, I think it will absolutely need to happen within the next 10 years, but, practically, we've managed to have NAT [Network Address Translation] boxes and [other] things cope with the current problems with IPv4. We need to have [IPv6] in case we need it.

Lawson: How do you respond to the criticism that Cisco doesn't innovate anymore, but just acquires and gradually integrates start-ups with new technology, and that by doing this it is slowing the pace of technological development?

Estrin: One of the strengths of Cisco is that, instead of having an incredibly strong not-invented-here syndrome, there's a strong culture of "we know we're the smartest, but if we missed something because we were focusing elsewhere, we're going to acquire it and bring it to our customers."

It's a question of focusing on where we invent and where not. Have we sometimes thought we were inventing and didn't do it quite as well, and found someone [to acquire]? Yes. Every company makes those trade-offs.

In terms of how quickly we integrate acquisitions, sometimes it's been done well and sometimes it hasn't.