Cisco: The Merchant-Silicon Question

As reported by MarketWatch yesterday, Lazard Capital analyst Daniel Amir has written a note suggesting that Cisco Systems, “long a proponent of in-house solutions, has begun the shift to off-the-shelf Broadcom parts.”

Amir added that he expects Broadcom and, to a lesser extent, Marvell to benefit from Cisco’s move to merchant silicon, as well as from an intensification of an industrywide trend toward off-the-shelf parts.

Staying the ASIC Course

Many of Cisco’s networking rivals already have made the switch to merchant silicon. Cisco, along with Brocade Communications, has stayed the course with custom ASICs, believing that the in-house chip designs confer meaningful proprietary differentiation and attendant competitive advantage.

It’s getting harder for Cisco to make that case, though, as the company suffers market-share losses and margin erosion at the low end of the switching market, which is being inexorably commoditized, and as it also meets increasingly strong competitive headwinds from vendors such as Juniper Networks and Arista Networks in the some of the largest and most demanding data-center environments.

As Cisco’s recently announced layoffs attest, the company is under unprecedented pressure from shareholders to reduce costs. It’s also under the gun to raise its top line, but that’s a tougher problem that could take a while to remedy.

Need to Cut Costs

On the cost front, though, Cisco clearly cannot jettison employees indefinitely. It needs to look at other ways to reduce capital and operating expenditures without compromising its ability to get back on a sustainable growth trajectory.

Given the success of its competitors with off-the-shelf networking chips, one would think Cisco would stop swimming against the merchant-silicon tide. It’s likely that merchant silicon would help reduce Cisco’s development costs, allowing it to at least mitigate the margin carnage it’s suffering at the hands of HP and others in an increasingly price-sensitive networking world.

But even though Amir suggests that Cisco’s apparent dalliance with merchant silicon might not be a “one-time experiment,” it’s not a given that Cisco will ardently transition from home-brewed ASICs to off-the-shelf chips.

Mixed Signals

Just last month, Rob Soderbery, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Unified Access business unit, contended that Cisco’s profits and market share in switching revenue might be taking a hit, but that it was holding its own it port-based market share. What’s more, Soderbery made the following statement regarding whether Cisco was considering adoption of merchant silicon over its custom ASICs:

 “There’s tremendous scale in our portfolio. We have competitive ASIC development. We always evaluate a make/buy decision. ASIC development is a core part of our strategy.”

Maybe Cisco, upon further review, has decided to change course, or perhaps Amir has misread the situation.

Next Setting Sun?

Nonetheless, EtherealMind.com’s Greg Ferro argued persuasively earlier this year that merchant silicon will dominate the networking-hardware market. If you haven’t read it, I advise you to read the whole piece, but here’s a money-shot excerpt:

 “I have the view that Merchant Silicon will dominate eventually, and physical networking products will become commodities that differentiate by software features and accessories – not unlike the “Intel server” industry (you should get the irony in that statement). As a result, any argument between “which is better – merchant or custom” is just matter of when you ask the question.

One interesting feature is that John Chambers continue to publicly state that custom silicon is their future. The are parallels with Sun Microsystems who continued to make their own processors in the face of an entire market shift, and that doesn’t appear to have worked out very well. In this another wrong footed innovation from Cisco? Time will tell.”

Besieged now by its shareholders as well as by its competitors, Cisco CEO John Chambers and his executive team are finding that time does not appear to be on their side.

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4 responses to “Cisco: The Merchant-Silicon Question

    • You were (and probably still are) quite prescient, Andrew. I note that you were correct about the market dynamics, and you were decidedly in the ballpark as to when Cisco would be forced to make the transition. An excellent call.

  1. Cisco – custom silicon. Brocade Ethernet products – moving from merchant silicon (Foundry) to custom silicon (VDX). Juniper – mostly custom silicon. HP’s Ethernet products – will continue to mix merchant silicon (H3C) and custom silicon (ProCurve).

    The four largest Ethernet players continue to invest in custom silicon. The four largest Ethernet players all have some products based on Merchant silicon. Ethernet switch vendors who exclusively use Merchant silicon tend to be focused on specific verticals (HPC and program trading) and sell lower volumes.

  2. Pingback: FIB update challenges in OpenFlow networks | David's CCIE Blog

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