Another Cisco face-lift?

For some, Cisco Systems Inc.’s recent acquisition of Procket’s intellectual property seems to signal that the network giant has no strategy. What it really signals is that Cisco has too many strategies and that at least some in the company are trying to fix the problem. The question now is whether they can succeed.

Cisco is under competitive pressure on many fronts. Juniper Networks Inc. and Avici Systems Inc. are selling into Cisco carrier accounts, and many believe that the need to compete with these two vendors is the justification for Cisco’s HFR efforts, culminating in the release of the new high-end CRS-1 family. At the same time, low-cost competitors such as 3Com Corp. are nibbling at the price-sensitive part of the edge router and LAN market, and rival Juniper has entered the customer edge space with an access router and the NetScreen Technologies security product set.

On the customer side, Cisco’s favoured competitive local exchange carriers and interexchange carriers are pretty much gone, and its one carrier star, AT&T Corp., is clearly in a serious transition of its own (and an Avici customer). The RBOCs, with whom Cisco has always had a strained relationship, threaten to be the only players left in the carrier market. At the enterprise, companies that used to depend on Cisco for planning their networks are looking more to integrators and consultants for their network planning, which dilutes Cisco’s influence in the accounts.

It’s Cisco’s organization that’s making these pressures hard to deal with. In the bubble period, Cisco created a bunch of product-specific organizational silos that divided up development and marketing into little tactical niches. This structure proved effective for Cisco in the tactical market that emerged after the bubble burst. It’s not so great in the current market, when enterprise customers and service providers are taking a more strategic view and want a compelling vision to answer their network concerns. Who speaks for Cisco strategy? A whole choir of infighting product promoters. That’s why Cisco recently named Charlie Giancarlo as CTO, and his first challenge will be dealing with the product transition that drove the Procket decision.

The Procket chips and the CRS-1 architecture into which they have to fit are the basis for a new Cisco product architecture that eventually will extend from core to edge. If Cisco can create a new architecture for its product line, with a modular hardware system and a modular version of IOS, it can sing with one strategic voice when buyers ask for a product. At the hardware level, Procket’s low-cost chips with low power and heat dissipation are a key element. But what about the organizational level? Every step of the way, the new products will collide with all the products Cisco already has in that space.

If Cisco is going to get into strategic product development and marketing, it has to break up its product silos. We’ll know whether Cisco is remaking itself when we see the company pull its development groups out of the product silos and make them independent. Independent development can build to one strategic concept that takes the architecture of the CRS-1 and the contribution of Procket and builds not only a new product family but also a new Cisco. Otherwise, internal politics will chew up the notion of a new, harmonized Cisco product set.

For decades, Cisco has been the champion of a network with distributed features and intelligence — IOS being the vehicle for doing the distributing. Today, both enterprise users and carriers want dumb cores with intelligence moved more to the edge. The new CRS-1/Procket combination could produce this shift, and Giancarlo could shepherd it along — if every product manager doesn’t develop a private strategy.

What happens if Cisco doesn’t shift to the strategic vision of product development? In military terms, it’s called “defeat in detail.” Product islands become less capable of pulling other Cisco products through and less effective as platforms for network-wide features that excite buyers. Margins shrink, profits fall, stock price dips — you get the picture.

It’s show and tell time, Cisco. Show us you’re a strategic leader again.

Nolle is president of CIMI, a technology assessment firm in Voorhees, N.J. He can be reached at 1-856-753-0004 or [email protected].

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