Cisco Content Net Plan has Some Holes

Cisco Systems Inc. has spent close to $7 billion in the past year assembling a line of products aimed at speeding the delivery of Web content across private and public IP networks. The company considers content networking to be at or near the top of its priority list in the enterprise and service provider markets.

The company recently announced an ambitious initiative called Content Delivery Network (CDN) that offers a content delivery system and defines standards for exchanging content between separate networks. Cisco's CDN products include routers, switches and software that address content distribution and management, edge delivery and "intelligent" network services.

Cisco's standards effort involves the formation of a group to define content exchange protocols and to ostensibly purchase and implement Cisco's content networking products.

In addition to generating Cisco product sales, the ultimate goal of the content strategy is to let corporate customers access fresh content securely, and for service providers to tap new revenue streams without taxing their network infrastructures. The means to these ends is to distribute content as close to the user as possible and to build a network that enables dynamic content synchronization and delivery.

Content delivery is essentially accelerated static images, Cisco officials say. Dynamic content delivery will let users more easily access content, regardless of which service provider's network it resides in. This is one of the goals behind Cisco's efforts to standardize protocols for content exchange.

The goal is for dynamic content to be a reality in 2002.

"We have a roadmap that takes service providers where they want to go ultimately, with dynamic content really being Nirvana," says Brian Walck, director of product management at Cisco.

Some users, such as Starwood Resorts in White Plains, N.Y., concur.

"From a creative service and training point of view, having a channel that we could be delivering property footage on, training material, updates on advertising campaigns, was just too good to be true," says Scott Williams, chief creative officer. "There's so much duplication, so much versioning out there that we need to get a handle on this."

Cisco's content delivery strategy is also very much a work in progress. Although Cisco claims to be the only vendor offering a content delivery system, there remains a number of technical and market issues to resolve - some Cisco-specific, others industrywide.

One is the definition of the so-called content peering protocol for letting service provider networks collaborate in provisioning content delivery services, according to Cisco officials at a recent briefing with Network World. Also, there are at least three content network standards bodies whose objectives appear to overlap to some degree.

Lastly, there's the specter of implementing an all-Cisco system, which some analysts believe could be a risky proposition for corporate customers and service providers looking to deploy best-of-breed products. Those products could include offerings from Cisco competitors Nortel Networks or Foundry Networks.

"Customers are really forced into an all-or-nothing infrastructure sourcing decision," wrote Tere' Bracco, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va., in a recent report on Cisco's strategy. "Either they select Cisco as their vendor of all infrastructure devices, or they don't have Cisco in their infrastructure at all."

In an effort to skirt the single-vendor issue and get the standards ball rolling, Cisco has established the Content Alliance to foster interoperability of content delivery networks. The alliance's 26 members include Sun Microsystems Inc., America Online Inc., Walt Disney Co., Cable & Wireless PLC, Digital Island Inc., PSInet Inc. and EMC Corp.

Although formed by Cisco, the Content Alliance is a "self-governing" organization that is open to any technology vendor, service provider or content provider that wishes to participate in the development of content network standards, Cisco says. One such standard includes a content peering protocol that would let Cisco devices in different service provider networks advertise the content a network holds, route request and content to other networks, and account for all this activity through logging and billing applications.

Cisco says it has invited content network competitors Nortel and Foundry to the alliance and is waiting to hear back from them.

"I had a little discussion with Foundry and I had a discussion with a gentleman from Nortel," says Jim Ricotta, director of marketing in Cisco's Content Services business unit. "I think Foundry just wanted the paperwork. The Nortel gentleman and I were going to trade voice mail. I think it's a no-brainer for these folks; it's something that has to be done."

Nortel and Foundry tell a different story.

"Cisco's absolutely not in discussions with us," says Selina Lo, vice president of marketing and product development at Alteon WebSystems Inc., a leading provider of content-aware Web switches that is being acquired by Nortel Networks Corp. "At least not with me, but I would know if they had approached Nortel."

Foundry says it, too, has not been approached by Cisco and is not enthused about what it believes is the "hidden objective" behind the Content Alliance.

"I think the intent of the people who are trying to build the alliance is right. However, I believe that the approach is not necessarily the right one to go with," says Chandra Kopparapu, Layer 4 product marketing manager at Foundry. "The hidden objective is to promote Cisco products. The hidden action behind developing this protocol is to actually further its products and have a better penetration for its products into this market. It's difficult for an interface to be accepted as a standard if it's developed with something else as an objective."

Kopparapu believes content peering needs to be addressed, but the need for a new protocol is not clear, he says. He draws parallels between the Content Alliance and Cisco's attempt to standardize its Web Content Caching Protocol (WCCP) a few years ago.

"Do you really need a standard? There's better caching available without WCCP. There should be one alliance, one body that comes up with the standard. People don't want two standards," Kopparapu says.

Nortel/Alteon's Lo says there is an alliance already formed to tackle the peering problem - the Content Bridge alliance, which also includes AOL and Digital Island, as well as Adero, Exodus Communications Inc. and Inktomi Corp. Nortel is expected to announce its participation in Content Bridge this week.

Lo says the difference between the two is that the Content Alliance is defining a standard for Cisco products only.

"It is absolutely a closed, proprietary, Cisco-boosting organization," Lo says. "Nortel would be very interested in participating in any forum that fosters true multivendor discussion and not have it be just a marketing thing for Cisco. Why would we want Cisco to dictate a standard just like it did WCCP? If Cisco wants the Content Alliance to be successful, it's got to be a little less obvious about this self-serving interest."

Nortel is also involved in the Broadband Content Delivery Forum (BCDF), which was founded last spring to recommend open architectures for delivering multimedia over broadband networks. The forum boasts more than 100 members, and was founded and chaired by Nortel.

So isn't labeling the Content Alliance "self-serving" a little of the pot calling the kettle black?

"The focus is content management but with a very significant subscriber-oriented view," Lo says. "It is marketing in the sense that it's a bunch of interested parties trying to define a way to set up subscriber policies and service provisioning standards. But there is actually technical work going on."

Lo says the BCDF is complementary to the Content Alliance and Content Bridge because it is subscriber-focused, while the other two are provider-focused. She admits, however, that some forum consolidation will have to take place.

Once this consolidation occurs and a standard is defined, interoperability must be achieved. To that end, the Content Alliance plans to test member products for adherence to the content peering protocol. But the ball is still up in the air as far as testing within an independent body or university laboratory is concerned.

"Obviously, the message is if you get it from Cisco, then they'll already have been highly system-integrated, tested and interoperable across third parties," says Paul McNab, director of marketing in Cisco's Enterprise business unit.

Cisco says it will test competitive gear - namely Nortel and Foundry equipment - for interoperability, provided the companies adopt the Content Alliance protocols. The likelihood of that happening is next to nil, if the comments from Kopparapu and Lo are any indication.

Standards and interoperability issues aside, Cisco's market clout alone will virtually guarantee that the vendor assumes a large share of influence, if not market share, in content networking. But the jury's still out on whether the Cisco strategy is a sound one for companies and service providers.

Bracco also says there remain unanswered questions as to how Cisco plans to synchronize content policy databases. Cisco it has that problem licked.

"The policy database synchronization logic in our product line contains a proprietary protocol and an embedded, highly scalable, self-organizing directory server. So when an operator makes a policy change of some kind, there's an underlying protocol that involves some notifications and some high-frequency polling," says Jim O'Toole, Cisco technical architect. "So a 10-minute polling of the version number solves that problem."

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