Cisco’s SONA path not clear

If there was any doubt remaining that Cisco is a lot more than a networking hardware outfit, company executives dispelled it at last month’s World Wide Analyst Conference. At the conference, Cisco trotted out its Service-Oriented Network Architecture (SONA) strategy, which aims to embed some services-oriented architecture (SOA) capabilities within the network, rather than having them all handled by software running on servers. While Cisco’s SONA plan sounded impressive, it’s still too early to tell how the strategy will play out or what exact role the network might have in an SOA implementation.

The main reason it’s tough to assess SONA’s potential at this point is Cisco executives provided very few details. Charles Giancarlo, the company’s chief development officer, said that Cisco hopes to speed up SOA processes by embedding certain common application functions, such as identity management, within the network and reduce the amount of application programming enterprises currently undertake to get custom applications talking to one another. That sounds well and good, but Cisco provided no information on what platforms this information might live on, or why an enterprise would want to have common SOA information living in the network rather than on servers.

Since there were no technical details on SONA available, it’s also tough to tell how, or even if, SONA would work in a multi-vendor network environment. SOA is supposed to make it simpler for enterprises to deal with their customers and business partners by allowing all parties’ applications, including customized enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software to work together. Multi-vendor networks within a single enterprise are the exception, rather than the rule, but what happens if an enterprise’s business partner happens to be running on a network using gear from, say, Extreme Networks? Would that business partner be shut out of the SOA loop until it installed a Cisco network? Would Cisco force companies like Extreme to pay a licence fee to get access to Cisco’s SONA architecture? Or would Cisco work to implement SONA in a completely open, standards-based manner? Again, it’s too early to tell, although given the frequent references to “intellectual capital” at the conference, the second option is most likely.

There is some risk for Cisco in pushing for some SOA elements to reside in the network. Some of Cisco’s biggest application-related partners, including IBM and Microsoft, are working on their own SOA strategies and obviously don’t have a vested interest in SOA intelligence moving off of their servers and software and into the network. Cisco will have to tread a fine line to ensure it doesn’t step too strongly on these parnters’ toes.

At this point there are plenty of reasons to look upon SONA with a skeptical eye. But there’s also one very good reason to believe SONA will ultimately succeed as a strategy. That reason is simply that Cisco doesn’t make a lot of missteps. The company has a stranglehold on the enterprise networking market and is repidly growing in a number of other areas including voice over IP and storage. Cisco didn’t become dominant in the networking market by making big mistakes, so ultimately it’s tough to believe Cisco is making a mistake with SONA.

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