Don't bet against Cisco's software play

David Krozier/Ovum
24 Jul 2013

Work on software-defined networking (SDN), network virtualization, and network functions virtualization (NFV) has led some to believe that software will develop to the point where it will render today’s switches and routers, and the companies that make them, obsolete – replaced by high-performance software running on virtual machines and generic, white-box hardware platforms.

At its 24th annual Cisco Live event, held June 23–27 in Orlando, Cisco laid claims of its early demise to rest. Rather than leave the future of networking to software start-ups and white-box products, Cisco is ready to lead the charge forward with what it calls Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI). With ACI Cisco will deliver an architectural solution where software, silicon, and services are designed as a system to bring optimum performance to applications.

Cisco is building a software business

Last year, at Cisco Live 2012, CEO John Chambers said Cisco would become a software company. At the time this sounded more like a wish than a plan as the company ethos was still firmly entrenched in hardware.

At Cisco Live 2013, Chambers went even further, saying he wants the company to move from being a leading networking company to become a leading IT company, and in the process become one of the world’s largest software providers. But this year his plan doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Though there is a long road ahead to break out of the product silo model and move to software and services, this year I got the impression that the company and its employees are moving in this direction.

Cisco has a vision of the network as a scalable service, and Cisco’s ambition is to deliver an architectural solution that supports collaboration between software developers and IT operations professionals to more rapidly introduce software products and services in support of business needs.

But hardware isn’t going away

Cisco’s initial support for SDN includes enhancements to its current product line to incorporate OpenFlow agents and Northbound APIs to support network programmability. However, rather than a commoditization of switches and routers, Cisco sees these network elements evolving to play an increasingly important role as software makes networks more intelligent and networks continue to scale.

Cisco envisions networks operating in an automated fashion, using a feedback loop in which network elements play a key role in collecting information from the network and presenting it to analytics engines.

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