Cisco makes SOA play

Cisco Systems will focus its efforts in the coming months on enhancing the role the network infrastructure plays in service-oriented architectures (SOA). But by moving into SOA, Cisco runs the risk of stepping on some of its partners’ toes, industry observers noted.

Cisco unveiled its SOA vision, dubbed SONA, at its World Wide Analyst Conference in December.

SONA stands for Services Oriented Network Architecture.

Executives were short on specifics of how exactly SONA will be implemented.

In general, what Cisco hopes to do is make it simpler for customized applications, such as Enterprise Resource Planning or Customer Relationship Management applications for example, to interact with one another, reducing the amount of custom interface programming currently required to get such applications talking.

In Cisco’s vision, this would be achieved by storing common application components, such as identity management, within the network on Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), instead of relying on server-based software to handle the application brokering, executives said.

Some observers say Cisco’s moves put it on a collision course with most of its key application-related partners: IBM, Microsoft, HP and CA.

Analysts said this type of toe-stepping and outright clashing is one of the biggest challenges for Cisco as it asserts its role in applications and SOA beyond its perceived image as a provider of network pipes.

In a series of presentations from Cisco execs at last month’s conference, the company continued its mantra that the network is the strategic centre for where IT intelligence should reside in enterprises.

“The network will evolve into the platform” on which enterprises will build IT intelligence and application services, Cisco CEO John Chambers told a group of 400 financial and industry analysts. He emphasized the growing SOA approaches companies are planning as the key driver for Cisco. “It’s the first time in history that technology advances are determining the future business strategies of companies.”

To that end, Charles Giancarlo, Cisco’s chief development officer, identified Application Network Services (ANS) as Cisco’s next Advanced Technology — or potential US$1 billion annual revenue stream. ANS wraps all of Cisco’s application-focused technologies under one umbrella — Layer 4-7 switching, WAN optimization, application acceleration and its Application Oriented Networking (AON) technologies around XML and SOA.

In a broader sense, ANS will be part of Cisco’s amorphous SONA strategy. SONA will encompass all of Cisco’s enterprise technologies — wired network infrastructure, voice, applications, security and mobility. Giancarlo said the SONA initiative will be on the level of past major Cisco initiatives, such as Cisco Blue — where IBM and Cisco network technologies were blended — and the company’s late 1990s AVVID push for voice, video and data convergence.

“It’s one of the first real restructurings of the way computers operate in the past several decades,” he said.

The idea behind SONA is to pool servers, storage, processing and applications, with the network layer acting as an intelligence fabric tying everything together.

With this, IT “becomes just a bunch of processors and disks,” tied together with intelligent network gear. Hardware and services virtualization will rely heavily on Cisco’s new data-centre and storage technologies, such as its TopSpin-based InfiniBand gear, as well as its AON technologies that accelerate XML and Web services traffic. The promise is that customers moving to SOA can save money and complexity by moving parts of SOA technology into the network — such as some tasks done by middleware and other server-based applications.

Reception of the strategy by analysts was mixed, as many said the details were unclear about how Cisco routers and switches equate to Web services and SOA. Cisco also must tread with caution, observers said, as it seems likely the vendor will clash with key partners the more it emphasizes the network intelligence over server intelligence.

“If you’re going to promote SONA as a solution to SOA migration, you sort of have to describe how you’re doing the SOA migration part of it,” says Thomas Nolle, president of telecom consulting company CIMI. “The problem with Cisco having an SOA strategy is that unless they articulate it razor sharp, it’s going to look like a threat to their partners,” he said.

Already, vendors that have close allegiances and partnerships with Cisco are girding for tough new competition from a friend.

“Cisco says they can take care of XML and HTML all inside the network, but why can’t that be done right in the server chipset?” says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects. This is happening on the other side, he says, as Intel recently acquired Sarvega, a maker of XML acceleration chips, and IBM bought DataPower, which makes hardware and software for accelerating XML and SOA traffic.

“The gray area is getting darker and darker and wider and wider,” in terms of what roles Cisco’s SONA plays and what roles SOA efforts by IBM, HP, Microsoft and others play in enterprise architectures, Dzubeck adds.

“It’s a philosophy issue,” he says. “you have to decide whether the network should be the centre of the IT universe.”

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