Cisco’s ‘borderless network’ strategy explained

Ross Fowler had to cross over from the U.S. to reach Toronto, but that’s one of the only borders he concerns himself with today.

As vice-president of Cisco’s Borderless Network Architecture group, Fowler is trying to help the network equipment maker sell enterprise customers on a holistic approach to offering anytime, anywhere access to corporate data across any device, especially as they begin to explore cloud computing models with third party providers. It’s a collection of products that includes elements from its switching, routing, security and wireless portfolio that some users and industry analysts have found confusing and difficult to wrap their heads around.

During a visit to take part in an IT World Canada-led roundtable discussion with senior Canadian IT executives, Fowler sat down with Network World Canada to discuss his progress to date.

Network World Canada: How would you evaluate your customer’s understanding of what Cisco’s “borderless network” concept actually means?

Ross Fowler: The issues that underpin the borderless network strategy are pervasive across our customers. I have found they have not made the connection in many instances between the issues they face around changes to the workplace experience, breaking down borders between us as consumers and us as employees, or breaking down the borders of functional silos in an organization and even breaking down the borders between the organization and the outside world – getting closer to customers, partners and suppliers. The connection between that and the growth in mobility and the work environment and also the growth in video. They haven’t made a connection between those market transition and the fact that their organization is becoming increasingly borderless. Initially when we launched this in August last year, the reaction was dubious, and in some cases it was actually quite negative. At our global customer advisory board, which has our top 60 global customers, the reaction was varied, but on balance most of them sat their with their arms folded, saying, “My organization will never be borderless.” But when they start to think about the transitions behind it they come to the conclusion that they actually can’t stop it. And if they don’t address the security challenges that this presents, they’re likely to be quite vulnerable. That’s where this discussion around policy, around posture, about cloud computing and the security implications that come out of that become more important, and understanding that the way they addressed security in the past won’t prepare them for the challenges in security in the future. 

NWC: Before borderless networks, there was Cisco’s “data centre 3.0” strategy. How does one naturally evolve to the other?

RF: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. As you know we headed down the data centre 3.0 path and then that sort of moved into data centre virtualization architecture. And in parallel we had a migration from IP telephony to unified communications, to then a collaboration architecture. So we embarked upon those two architectures, but we didn’t embark upon an architecture for the underlying network infrastructure that supports that. Our conclusion was that we needed to take the business that we’d been in for the past 25 years and actually create an architecture for that, to support the virtualization architecture and the collaboration architectures, and this meant we had to move beyond just treating routing, switching, routing and security as separate products, and bring them together as an architecture.

NWC: Some network managers have indicated that Cisco’s borderless network strategy is overwhelming, and they’d just like to be sold products they need. How are you working through that sort of thing?

RF: Well it’s not only that we need to work through those with customers, we need to work differently within Cisco. You probably heard about our rather large transformation around boards and councils – to move from command and control to collaboration. So we actually formed a borderless network board at the same time we developed the architecture to actually turn that into a reality within the engineering organization. It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to you that we’ve had switching business units, wireless business units, a security business unit and routing. The level of integration and cooperation between those business units was really not the standard required to deliver an architecture. So we took the overlying borderless network architecture and said, “What are the network services we need to deliver across those business units to make this a reality?” Things like Motion – the mobility service, energy-wise to manage energy consumption, Trustsec to deliver security capabilities, App Velocity to deliver application performance across the network, and MediaNet to deliver video and voice across the network. We then converted that overall architecture into specifications for features in each of the products to work across those products. For example, MediaNet requires RSVP, which is an IP protocol that’s been around for a long time, plus NBAR, plus PFR, or performance routing, to work seamlessly across all of those products with one management platform. The board then provided funding for all those business units to turn that vision, if you like, into features within each of the boxes and how they work together. And that’s a big change for Cisco.

NWC: The borderless network idea includes the way companies are now globally distributed, the way compute resources are farmed into the cloud and the way applications are delivered as a service. In terms of preparing your network, how should network administrators figure out the best place to start?

RF: There is no universal answer to it. I expected a degree of commonality amongst our customers, but they’re hugely diverse. They want to go at different paces depending upon their business model and also their budget. So we actually set out and have seven questions that help our customers think about the network in a different way. We use those seven for the foundation of the borderless network architecture and then about six months into it we had to add question No. 8. We couldn’t find any customer that could answer “yes” to all seven questions, and even answer “yes” or “no.” Like, “Are you able to manage application performance across your network for all applications and devices?” They don’t know. So we added question No. 8, which is, “Where am I now, and where do I start?” We put together some of our advanced services capabilities to do network assessment exercises with each of our customers. If your priority is mobility, for example, what do you have to do to address that first? Knowing that video might be around the corner, and it might be two to three years – in fact, most customers see it now but it hasn’t reached a crisis point, but in two to three years it will – how do you prepare for that? We found that we had to introduce services on a very customized basis for each customer, and that’s what we’ve done.

NWC: It seems like Cisco is targeting the CIO with borderless networks, but given how much the network helps drive much of the business activity now, how is the role of the network administrator changing?

RF: When I was in Europe, if we had engagements with CIOs around the uptime of their data centre, they could give the answer like that (snaps fingers). If you asked them the uptime of their network was, unless they were service providers, they would struggle to have an answer. I’m not so sure that pervasively across the IT organization that they take an architectural and lifecycle approach to their network in the same way that they do for their data centre. And certainly our view is, and with some of the leading customers, they need to take an architectural and lifecycle approach to their network, because it is mission-critical infrastructure. I’m not so sure they truly understand how mission-critical this is and how complex this is. The network administrators really understand this because they’ve been working at it for so long, but as you go into the application area of our customer area or the security area of our customers’ organizations, they may not realize the role the network really plays.

 



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