Cisco bets on network management

Cisco wants to become a bigger player in the network and application performance management technology realm. In December the company launched the Network Application Performance Analysis (NAPA) product suite, which offered customers traffic and packet analysis, bandwidth monitoring and application performance management products and services. Now Cisco is targeting network device configuration and change management. Cliff Meltzer, senior vice president of the Network Management Technology Group at Cisco,recently discussed how the vendor sees management technology helping customers evolve their networks to support advanced IP applications and network service with Network World Senior Editor Denise Dubie.

Update our readers on Cisco’s progress with its management technology strategy and product launches.

When we started this, it was clear that this is not a ‘come up with a couple of products and that will satisfy things’ approach. As customers have been using the first suite of products, they were coming back, seeing the potential and saying, ‘Couldn’t you help me in this area?’ Now they are asking for better diagnostics and visibility into some the latency issues that occur within their entire systems. They want to know how they can get a good way to track the complete flows of a transaction as it runs through an entire system. They are looking to us to take what we have done at a network level and interface it now to diagnostics and monitoring techniques that exist in other areas of their IT environment and help them diagnose more system level issues. They want things monitored at a system level. We’ve monitored for them at the network level. Now they want to go a step above from that and interface your tools with other system management tools.

How is Cisco approach now different from how it has worked with customers to manage networks in the past?

The philosophical change is that this is a terrific set of capabilities that customers are deploying. The next step is to give them more control over it so they can set up business policies and tell the network how to behave. For instance, which applications, which users, what level of service do you want to guarantee. This moves up from performance management into systems assurance management. They are determining how to assure the network and systems they are running are delivering the results that they need and allows them to set up rules and policies ahead of time to dictate and direct the network how to act under certain constraint conditions.

This week’s PACE [Proactive Automation of Change Execution] product suite is based on an OEM deal with Opsware. How important does this type of partnership help Cisco?

The overall management arena is about a complete solution for our customers. We’ve said that we are going to concentrate on the aspects of it that we can do really, really well, and that require or take advantage of information about what’s running in the network, with an affinity to network services. We are probably going to be able to do this better than most people because of the fact that we understand the network elements and the software that runs that aspect of it. We’ve also said that we will partner with industry leaders in all the other spaces, and we are continuing with that philosophy because it has served us very well. We take companies that we feel have leadership technology, a similar view as to what customer problems are and how customers want to solve those problems, and we then work with them to create a solution. We are continuing down the partnership road for the critical areas that we know customers need, but that other companies already have leadership or a technical expertise in. Therefore we don’t have to spend our time there, instead we spend our time interfacing to it and bringing it into the overall system architecture that we put together for how we do this, but absolutely leveraging the work and experience that they have in their part of the market segment. That is doing very well with all the different partnerships we have.

How does PACE follow on the management capabilities Cisco provided with its NAPA suite?

Whenever you provide a customers with a system that monitors and enables them to want to dynamically make changes, you have to ask yourself, what is the cost to the customer of using that tool. When we brought NAPA out, we knew the visibility and capabilities to dynamically change the network would expose another problem. [Customers] actually don’t feel confident in making these dynamic changes by themselves on the fly, which is where PACE comes in. PACE allows them to make those changes now with a very high degree of confidence. It is a natural step. Whenever you are giving customers the ability to make changes, you have to then give them the tools to allow them to make changes with confidence.

How do products within the PACE suite work?

PACE will ensure the changes you are making are not at odds with a change that an operator may have made at 3 am that you are unaware of. There are too many people touching the network at any given time. The only way to keep track of all the changes is to automatically maintain the configuration files, trap any changes and register them so you can look across the network and make changes with confidence. It may be 98% of the time that the changes they would have suggested would have worked just fine, what we are giving them is the confidence to do that 100% of the time. Because the 2% of the time when there is some mismatch with another change on the network, before they make the change and cause a service impacting outage, we alert them to what the change is, analyze it, suggest what should be done to correct it. Then if they agree it’s a question of hitting an accept button and scheduling the changes. We take the mystery and errors out of actually making the physical changes in the network.

How did customer requirements shape the development of the new products?

It’s funny when we did NAPA in December we knew it was an important set of initiatives to get out there, but we also knew the really shrewd customers were going to say: This is really great, but I am not sure that I will be so willing to let my average operator go ahead and make the changes that you are pointing out because we don’t know what else is happening in the network. Several of the customers looked at us and said they needed help with the compliance and change management process. They correctly pointed out this is not just a single network element problem, that they needed to understand these changes and how they reflect upon the network, not just the physical network elements. That is why we took some extra time not to just pick a product that could manage a single network element. We also wanted to integrate it into the overall solution that looks across network connectivity and network-level services because that is probably a more complex area than just the rules and policies to handle the single network element.

NAPA and PACE products boast multivendor support, meaning Cisco technology can manage other vendor gear. How can that help customers accomplish their management goals?

It’s an operational nightmare for customers have a tool that runs Cisco devices, another tool that runs vendor X devices and still another that runs vendor Y devices. Customers are forced to put those things together in their operators head. They are forced to integrate multiple different tools with different capabilities. They look at us and say, If you want to be the leader in management systems, then I want Cisco to solve my problems. Their problem is that they run multivendor networks and they need the same types of things we are doing for Cisco products, they really need that to be multivendor. They buy the management systems based on who gives them the operational efficiency to run their network. Our products and support are multivendor. We will take the responsibility of dealing with the other vendor, tracking down problems. The customer doesn’t have to get into the problem of he said/she said, who do I call. Is it vendor’s problem or a software problem. We own that for the customer to make sure they are using the product properly and we are able to correct problems.

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