Closed shop invites open war

Some six months and counting, it is still difficult to get a handle on what Cisco is really doing with its Application-Oriented Networking initiative. More importantly, it is difficult to understand how Cisco’s customers are viewing it — and ultimately, how the rest of the network industry should respond.

A quick Internet search can usually provide some indication of the buzz being generated, but the landscape painted by a Google search of “Cisco AON” is a bit difficult to read. While there are plenty of results, most seem to date from mid-2005, when AON officially was unveiled. Is it an indication of a lack of momentum, or is it simply too early to tell for something this strategic?

And, while there are no tumbleweeds rolling across Cisco’s AON home page, it does seem to have much the same content — especially with respect to testimonials and endorsements — as it did when it was unveiled.

At the industry level, the lack of buzz could be attributed to several factors that I’ll label Don’t Know and Don’t Care.

It is easy to end up in the Don’t Know category since the formidable marketing team at Cisco has positioned AON to be an “all things to all people” offering with marketing materials invoking just about every trendy concept and buzzword, from geek-speak such as XML to lofty strategic concepts like service-oriented architecture.

The marketing folks fail to mention that it also happens to be 100 per cent proprietary Cisco from top to bottom and that embracing it takes away the last remaining shreds of vendor choice. But maybe they ran out of space.

This overly broad definition is marketing genius because there likely are very few people who have sufficient knowledge about all the AON elements to be able to rebut Cisco. For those companies where strategic IT architecture decisions are made on the golf course — Cisco rep in tow — it fits the bill. A warm day, a round of golf and a few drinks, and you quickly become a convert to AON.

You can easily join the Don’t Care camp once you hunt around and uncover the details of AON. According to Cisco, it can route messages, transform them and even be an application proxy. All of this exists already. XML switches have been around for several years. Middleware has been around even longer. And an application proxy just means Cisco will re-create someone else’s application in its box. While all of these have been available for some time, they haven’t been from Cisco.

But let’s cast aside doubt and posit for the sake of argument that Cisco’s AON is every bit as good and every bit as essential to IT architects as Cisco says it is. Should that be the case, the AON initiative needs to be completely open, with competing networking vendors able to build out AON-style offerings.

For it to be otherwise would be like asking customers today to embrace a proprietary wireless technology — they would never do it.

There’s precedent for vendors responding to a unilateral architectural offering with a competing open version. When IBM pushed its proprietary APPN initiative in the early 1990s, Cisco led the charge to neutralize IBM’s gambit for control of the backbone by launching APPI. That was enough to stop APPN in its tracks (at which point APPI vanished). Maybe it is time for vendors to recall that and fight fire with fire.

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Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Boca Raton, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected]

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