How Cisco Arrived at the Crossroads

As reports of Cisco’s impending layoffs intensify and spread, I started thinking about how the networking giant got into its current predicament and whether it can escape from it.

One major problem for the company is that the challenges it faces aren’t entirely attributable to its own mistakes. If Cisco’s own bumbling was wholly responsible for the company’s middle-life crisis, one might think it could stop engaging in self-harm, right the ship, and chart a course to renewed prosperity.

Internal Missteps Exacerbated by External Factors

But, even though Cisco has contributed significantly to its own decline — with a byzantine bureaucratic management structure replete with a multitude of executive councils, half-baked forays into consumer markets about which it knew next to nothing, imperial overstretch into too many markets with too many diluted products, and the loss of far too many talented leaders — external factors also played a meaningful role in bringing the company to this crossroads.

Those external factors comprise market dynamics and increasingly effective incursions by competitors into Cisco’s core business of switching and routing, not just in the telco space but increasingly — and more significantly — in enterprise markets, where Cisco heretofore has maintained hegemonic dominance.

If we look into the recent past, we can see that Cisco saw one threat coming well before it actually arrived. Before cloud computing crashed the networking party and threatened to rearrange data-center infrastructure worldwide, Cisco faced the threat of network-gear commoditization from a number of vendors, including the “China-out” 3Com, which had completely remade itself into a Chinese company with an American name through its now-defunct H3C joint venture with Huawei.

Now, of course, 3Com is part of HP Networking, and a big draw for HP when it acquired 3Com was represented by the cost-effective products and low-priced engineering talent that H3C offered. HP reasoned that if Cisco wanted to come after its server market with Unified Computing System (UCS), HP would fight back by attacking the relatively robust margins in Cisco’s bread-and-butter business with aggressively priced networking gear.

Cisco Prescience

HP’s strategy, especially in a baleful macroeconomic world where cost-cutting in enterprises and governments is now an imperative rather than a prerogative, is beginning to bear fruit, as recent market-share gains attest.

Meanwhile, Cisco knew that Huawei, gradually eating into its telecommunications market share in markets outside North America, would eventually seek future growth in the enterprise. It was inevitable, and Cisco had to prepare for the same low-priced, value-based onslaught that Huawei waged so successfully against it in overseas carrier accounts. In the enterprise, Huawei would follow the same telco script, focusing first on overseas markets — in its home market, China, as well as in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and South America — before making its push into a less-receptive North American market.

That is happening now, as I write this post, but Cisco had the prescience to see it on the horizon years before it actually occurred.

Explaining Drive for Diversification

What do you think that hit-and-miss diversification strategy — into consumer markets, into home networking, into enterprise collaboration with WebEx, into telepresence, into smart grids, into so much else besides — was all about? Cisco was looking to escape getting hit by the bullet train of network commoditization, aimed straight at its core business.

That Cisco has not excelled in its diversification strategy into new markets and technologies shouldn’t come as a surprise. Well before it make those moves, it had failed in diversification efforts much closer to home, in areas such as WAN optimization, where it had been largely unsuccessful against Riverbed, and in load balancing/application traffic management, where F5 had throughly beaten back the giant. The truth is, Cisco has a spotty record in truly adjacent or contiguous markets, so it’s no wonder that it has struggled to dominate markets that are further afield.

Game Gets More Complicated

Still, the salient point is that Cisco went into all those markets because it felt it needed to do so, for revenue growth, for margin support, for account control, for stakeholder benefit.

Now, cloud computing, with all its many implications for networking, is roiling the telco, service provider, and enterprise markets. It’s not certain that Cisco can respond successfully to cloud-centric threats posed by data-center networking vendors such Juniper Networks as Arista Networks or by technologies such as software-defined networking (as represented by the OpenFlow protocol).

Cisco was already fighting one battle, against the commoditizing Huaweis and 3Coms of the world, and now another front has opened.

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One response to “How Cisco Arrived at the Crossroads

  1. You’re spot on in that Cisco’s diversification has always been a strategy to counter network-gear commoditization. You’re harsh in calling their success in adjacencies ‘spotty’ – think the whole Enterprise voice market, where theri track record is far from shabby. Prob ably neck and neck with Avaya there, and without the starting advantage of TDM incumbency.

    However Cisco clearly now has, finally, lost its way. Will it be able to climb back, even to the extent that IBM once did? That I think is the question.

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