Cisco backs NDS ... sorta, kinda, maybe

Novell appeared to grab the directory brass ring this week when Cisco Systems endorsed Novell Directory Services (NDS), but the agreement is not all that it's cracked up to be.

Under the terms of the deal, announced at Comdex/Fall '98, Cisco agreed to offer ties between NDS and two components of its CiscoAssure hardware management software. CiscoAssure is a family of products used to define and implement policies regarding network security, quality of service and address management.

Cisco is the third hardware vendor in the past month to back NDS, joining Nortel/Bay and Lucent. But Cisco will not license NDS code from Novell, as Lucent and Nortel/Bay have done. Nor will Cisco bundle NDS with its CiscoAssure products, although its competitors have agreed to bundle the directory technology directly with their respective policy management wares.

"This deal certainly can't be viewed as a marriage [of the products] by any means," says Rick Villars, director of network software research at International Data Corp.

"It's simply an acknowledgement that Novell users, who also happen to be using Cisco hardware, need some attention," he says.

Novell tried to portray the deal as a giant leap forward in CEO Eric Schmidt's mandate to push NDS into every corner of customers' enterprise networks.

"It's incredibly important for us and for our customers that Cisco sees NDS as a directory service it needs to support," says Ronald Palmeri, vice president of strategic relations at Novell.

Novell has been clamouring to get Cisco on board since Cisco first penned a more exclusive deal with Microsoft in May 1997. That deal gives Cisco a role in developing Active Directory, a yet to be released Microsoft product that will compete with NDS. Cisco has committed to Active Directory as its strategic directory service for future policy-based management wares.

As a side project, Microsoft and Cisco spearheaded the Directory Enabled Network (DEN) Initiative, an effort to get hardware and directory vendors to agree on a common way to represent information about hubs, switches and routers in directories. Cisco has consistently said it would only provide NDS ties to its gear via mutual support for DEN.

But what Cisco has now agreed to do is link NDS and two of its existing policy management products, the Network Registrar and User Registration and Tracking service. These ties will synchronise information about registered users between NDS and the CiscoAssure policy management server.

According to Cisco officials, it is already possible to tie the Network Registrar to NDS because they both support the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). This level of support is available to any directory company that has an LDAP-enabled product, says Joe Hielscher, director of marketing for policy management at Cisco.

Cisco will, however, make extensions to its User Registration and Tracking service specifically for NDS.

Those hooks should be delivered in the second quarter of next year.

Why the change of heart? Cisco has been getting pressure to back NDS from customers who use Novell products.

Tom Ferris, a network administrator for a financial institution in Washington, DC, who started a forum on this topic on Network World Fusion last August, isn't overly enthusiastic about this new partnership, because of its limited scope.

"But I hope it is an indication of an expanding relationship," Ferris says.

Bill Kanneberg, technology manager for the Hillsboro,Florida, county government, is also sceptical. The county is looking to upgrade the gear used to support a 55-server NetWare 4.X network. "It's down to Lucent and Cisco," Kanneberg says.

"Cisco gives the impression that they haven't fully bought into the whole NDS strategy. That leaves big questions in my mind about just how well their integration is going to work," he says.

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