Cisco takes another plunge into network management

I remember when some Cisco executives positioned the company as a software vendor, not a hardware vendor - its R&D focused a lot more on IOS and other software than the networking hardware surrounding it. And to a large degree for better, and in some ways for worse (as constant updates could drive networking planners crazy), the software inside Cisco's networking devices has been a product and brand definer.

However, I don't believe that anyone in the broader market assumed that Cisco was fundamentally in the business of selling software. From a business-model perspective, if nothing else, such an assumption would have been untrue. The software in Cisco switches and routers was designed to enhance their value as networking infrastructure equipment and to provide capability that was hardware-independent, rather than network-centric.

In parallel, in the past (including the recent past), Cisco has had a less-than-lustrous reputation in network management. This sort of limitation - one not only of product but also of sales, service and overall culture - has seemed to reinforce its hardware centricity. After all, hardware vendors sell "things" and as such tend not to be very good at selling intangibles.

In contrast, software vendors sell solutions to enable processes directly impacting how IT lives and works. The sales models, cultural models, customer relationships and services required for the two are poles apart within the IT industry. This is true, interestingly, even when software is housed in hardware. It is even true when software performance is embedded in chips for performance reasons, but the fundamental value proposition is software-centric in benefits and industry relationships. The litmus test in the end isn't packaging, it's primarily the value proposition being sold.

That's why there have been some "jaw-dropping-to-the-floor" moments for me in the past six months, culminating at Cisco's analyst event in early December.

Here, I'm going to discuss Cisco's newly reshaped initiatives in network management. Cisco's network management team is now richly resourced, committed, and perhaps even more significant - deeply respected -within Cisco. Recently Cisco introduced four new products aimed at enhancing lifecycle performance over the network, coupled with four new services. The collective bundle, labeled the "Network Application Performance Analysis Solution" also includes enhanced versions of three existing products: the Network Analysis Module (NAM) for performance monitoring and troubleshooting; the Cisco NetFlow Collector; and Cisco LAN Management Solution (Resource Manager Essentials) for device configuration and administration. The four new solutions build on these.

Two of the four new products, the Cisco Network Planning Solution and the Cisco Application Analysis Solution, are OEMed from Opnet but are fully supported by Cisco as Cisco products with Cisco services. They are multi-vendor in scope (including multiple networking hardware vendors - i.e., Cisco competitors), and are two of the most robust, if complex, solutions available in the market for planning and monitoring application deployments over the network.

The other two are Cisco Bandwidth Quality Analyzer, targeted at baselining and optimizing quality of service for applications, and Cisco Performance Visibility Manager, which provides a portal-like umbrella for monitoring application performance.

Cisco also quietly introduced more complete voice-over-IP and Multi-protocol Label Switching monitoring capabilities that are apparently winning the hearts and minds of its customers.

This is not the much-anticipated "platform announcement" that Cisco will likely make next year, which EMA has linked to modeling capabilities within the Sheer Networks acquisition. But it is a first, ambitious step toward a potent and integrated management portfolio coupled with defined support and services. It will depend, by the way, hugely on Cisco's commitment to service, support and sales delivery to succeed.

But I am optimistic based on the discussions with Cisco executives I have had to date, that this is a truly "new regime" and should at least be judged on its own merits, rather than tarred with negative assumptions from the past. I will be keeping my eyes open in my dialogs with IT users to see how these track and, of course, welcome your feedback as these new solutions roll out to get your insights on their success.

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