Category Archives: Consumerization of IT

On Network Engineers and Industry Eccentrics

On Network Engineers

Alan Cohen, former marketing VP at Nicira Networks (until just after it was acquired by VMware), wrote an engrossing piece on the rise and fall of “human IT middleware.” His article deals broadly with how system and network administrators are being displaced by software developers in an IT hierarchy reordered by datacenter virtualization, automation, and cloud computing.

Previously, the future of the networking professional has been discussed and debated in a number of forums. In early 2011, back in the veritable dark ages before the ascent of software-defined networking (SDN), Ziyad Basheer, writing at Greg Ferro’s EtherealMind, wondered about how automation tools would affect network administrators. In June of this year, Derick Winkworth (aka CloudToad), in his last column at Packet Pushers before he joined Juniper Networks, opined on the rise of network-systems engineers

Also at Packet Pushers, Ethan Banks subsequently argued that network engineers could survive the onslaught of SDN if they could adapt and master new skills, such as virtualization and network programmability.  Ivan Pepelnjak, though he sounded a more skeptical note on SDN, made a similar point with the aid of his “magic graphs.” 

Regardless of when SDN conquers the enterprise, the consensus is that now is  not the time for complacency. The message: Never stop learning, never stop evolving, and stay apprised of relevant developments. 

On Industry Eccentrics 

Another story this week led me to take a different stroll down memory lane. As I read about the truly bizarre case of John McAfee, recounted in news articles and in recollections of those who knew him, I was reminded of notable eccentrics in the networking industry.

Some of you wizened industry veterans might recall Cabletron Systems, from which Enterasys was derived, run in its idiosyncratic heyday by founders Bob Levine and Craig Benson.   There’s an old Inc. article from 1991, still available online, that captures some of the madness that was Cabletron. Here’s a snippet on Levine: 

He is, after all, prone to excess. Want to know how Levine has spent his newfound wealth? He bought a tank. A real one, with a howitzer on top and turrets that spin around. Last summer, for kicks, he chased a pizza-delivery boy, and the following day while “four-wheeling in the woods,” he ran smack into a tree. He emerged with one less tooth and a concussion. The buddy with him got 17 stitches. Levine also owns 15 guns, which he has, on occasion, used to shoot up his own sprinkler system. His 67-foot Hatteras is named Soldier of Fortune. Some people swear they’ve seen the magazine of the same name lying on his desk. “I’m not a mercenary or anything,” he says with a smile. “But if business ever goes bad. . . . “

Here’s an excerpt from the same article on Benson, who later served as Governor of New Hampshire

Last summer Benson joined 40 employees for a Sunday boat trip. Afterward he ordered two of them fired immediately. One had not even started yet. “I hated him,” says Benson, who was eventually persuaded to give the new hire a chance. At sales meetings, reports Kenneth Levine, it’s standard to conduct private polls on who will go next.

You cannot make this stuff up. Well, I couldn’t.

Lest you think networking’s only colorful characters were Cabletron’s dynamic duo, I’d like to reference Henry T. Nicholas III, Broadcom’s founder and former CEO. He even had a Vanity Fair article written about him, though ultimately the lurid charges against Nicholas were dropped.

Lessons for Cisco in Cius Failure

When news broke late last week that Cisco would discontinue development of its Android-based Cius, I remarked on Twitter that it didn’t take a genius to predict the demise of  Cisco’s enterprise-oriented tablet. My corroborating evidence was an earlier post from yours truly — definitely not a genius, alas — predicting the Cius’s doom.

The point of this post, though, will be to look forward. Perhaps Cisco can learn an important lesson from its Cius misadventure. If Cisco is fortunate, it will come away from its tablet failure with valuable insights into itself as well as into the markets it serves.

Negative Origins

While I would not advise any company to navel-gaze obsessively, introspection doesn’t hurt occasionally. In this particular case, Cisco needs to understand what it did wrong with the Cius so that it will not make the same mistakes again.

If Cisco looks back in order to look forward, it will find that it pursued the Cius for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.  Essentially, Cisco launched the Cius as a defensive move, a bid to arrest the erosion of its lucrative desktop IP-phone franchise, which was being undermined by unified-communications competition from Microsoft as well as from the proliferation of mobile devices and the rise of the BYOD phenomenon. The IP phone’s claim to desktop real estate was becoming tenuous, and Cisco sought an answer that would provide a new claim.

In that respect, then, the Cius was a reactionary product, driven by Cisco’s own fears of desktop-phone cannibalization rather than by the allure of a real market opportunity. The Cius reeked of desperation, not confidence.

Hardware as Default

While the Cius’ genetic pathology condemned it at birth, its form also hastened its demise. Cisco now is turning exclusively to software (Jabber and WebEx) as answers to enterprise-collaboration conundrum, but it could have done so far earlier, before the Cius was conceived. By the time Cisco gave the green light to Cius, Apple’s iPhone and iPad already had become tremendously popular with consumers, a growing number of whom were bringing those devices to their workplaces.

Perhaps Cisco’s hubris led it to believe that it had the brand, design, and marketing chops to win the affections of consumers. It has learned otherwise, the hard way.

But let’s come back to the hardware-versus-software issue, because Cisco’s Cius setback and how the company responds to it will be instructive, and not just within the context of its collaboration products.

Early Warning from a Software World

As noted previously, Cisco could have gone with a software-based strategy before it launched the Cius. It knew where the market was heading, and yet it still chose to lead with hardware. As I’ve argued before, Cisco develops a lot of software, but it doesn’t act (or sell) like software company. It can sell software, but typically only if the software is contained inside, and sold as, a piece of hardware. That’s why, I believe, Cisco answered the existential threat to its IP-phone business with the Cius rather than with a genuine software-based strategy. Cisco thinks like a hardware company, and it invariably proposes hardware products as reflexive answers to all the challenges it faces.

At least with its collaboration products, Cisco might have broken free of its hard-wired hardware mindset. It remains to be seen, however, whether the deprogramming will succeed in other parts of the business.

In a world where software is increasingly dominant — through virtualization, the cloud, and, yes, in networks — Cisco eventually will have to break its addiction to the hardware-based business model. That won’t be easy, not for a company that has made its fortune and its name selling switches and routers.

Debating SDN, OpenFlow, and Cisco as a Software Company

Greg Ferro writes exceptionally well, is technologically knowledgeable, provides incisive commentary, and invariably makes cogent arguments over at EtherealMind.  Having met him, I can also report that he’s a great guy. So, it is with some surprise that I find myself responding critically to his latest blog post on OpenFlow and SDN.

Let’s start with that particular conjunction of terms. Despite occasional suggestions to the contrary, SDN and OpenFlow are not inseparable or interchangeable. OpenFlow is a protocol, a mechanism that allows a server, known in SDN parlance as a controller, to interact with and program flow tables (for packet forwarding) on switches. It facilitates the separation of the control plane from the data plane in some SDN networks.

But OpenFlow is not SDN, which can be achieved with or without OpenFlow.  In fact, Nicira Networks recently announced two SDN customer deployments of its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) — at DreamHost and at Rackspace, respectively — and you won’t find mention of OpenFlow in either press release, though OpenStack and its Quantum networking project receive prominent billing. (I’ll be writing more about the Nicira deployments soon.)

A Protocol in the Big Picture 

My point is not to diminish or disparage OpenFlow, which I think can and will be used gainfully in a number of SDN deployments. My point is that we have to be clear that the bigger picture of SDN is not interchangeable with the lower-level functionality of OpenFlow.

In that respect, Ferro is absolutely correct when he says that software-defined networking, and specifically SDN controller and application software, are “where the money is.” He conflates it with OpenFlow — which may or may not be involved, as we already have established — but his larger point is valid.  SDN, at the controller and above, is where all the big changes to the networking model, and to the industry itself, will occur.

Ferro also likely is correct in his assertion that OpenFlow, in and of itself, will  not enable “a choice of using low cost network equipment instead of the expensive networking equipment that we use today. “ In the near term, at least, I don’t see major prospects for change on that front as long as backward compatibility, interoperability with a bulging bag of networking protocols, and the agendas of the networking old guard are at play.

Cisco as Software Company

However, I think Ferro is wrong when he says that the market-leading vendors in switching and routing, including Cisco and Juniper, are software companies. Before you jump down my throat, presuming that’s what you intend to do, allow me to explain.

As Ferro says, Cisco and Juniper, among others, have placed increasing emphasis on the software features and functionality of their products. I have no objection there. But Ferro pushes his argument too far and suggests that the “networking business today is mostly a software business.”  It’s definitely heading in that direction, but Cisco, for one, isn’t there yet and probably won’t be for some time.  The key word, by the way, is “business.”

Cisco is developing more software these days, and it is placing more emphasis on software features and functionality, but what it overwhelmingly markets and sells to its customers are switches, routers, and other hardware appliances. Yes, those devices contain software, but Cisco sells them as hardware boxes, with box-oriented pricing and box-oriented channel programs, just as it has always done. Nitpickers will note that Cisco also has collaboration and video software, which it actually sells like software, but that remains an exception to the rule.

Talks Like a Hardware Company, Walks Like a Hardware Company

For the most part, in its interactions with its customers and the marketplace in general, Cisco still thinks and acts like a hardware vendor, software proliferation notwithstanding. It might have more software than ever in its products, but Cisco is in the hardware business.

In that respect, Cisco faces the same fundamental challenge that server vendors such as HP, Dell, and — yes — Cisco confront as they address a market that will be radically transformed by the rise of cloud services and ODM-hardware-buying cloud service providers. Can it think, figuratively and literally, outside the box? Just because Cisco develops more software than it did before doesn’t mean the answer is yes, nor does it signify that Cisco has transformed itself into a software vendor.

Let’s look, for example, at Cisco’s approach to SDN. Does anybody really believe that Cisco, with its ongoing attachment to ASIC-based hardware differentiation, will move toward a software-based delivery model that places the primary value on server-based controller software rather than on switches and routers? It’s just not going to happen, because  it’s not what Cisco does or how it operates.

Missing the Signs 

And that bring us to my next objection.  In arguing that Cisco and others have followed the market and provided the software their customers want, Ferro writes the following:

“Billion dollar companies don’t usually miss the obvious and have moved to enhance their software to provide customer value.”

Where to begin? Well, billion-dollar companies frequently have missed the obvious and gotten it horribly wrong, often when at least some individuals within the companies in question knew that their employer was getting it horribly wrong.  That’s partly because past and present successes can sow the seeds of future failure. As in Clayton M. Christensen’s classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, industry leaders can have their vision blinkered by past successes, which prevent them from detecting disruptive innovations. In other cases, former market leaders get complacent or fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a competitive threat until it is too late.

The list of billion-dollar technology companies that have missed the obvious and failed spectacularly, sometimes disappearing into oblivion, is too long to enumerate here, but some  names spring readily to mind. Right at the top (or bottom) of our list of industry ignominy, we find Nortel Networks. Once a company valued at nearly $400 billion, Nortel exists today only in thoroughly digested pieces that were masticated by other companies.

Is Cisco Decline Inevitable?

Today, we see a similarly disconcerting situation unfolding at Research In Motion (RIM), where many within the company saw the threat posed by Apple and by the emerging BYOD phenomenon but failed to do anything about it. Going further back into the annals of computing history, we can adduce examples such as Novell, Digital Equipment Corporation, as well as the raft of other minicomputer vendors who perished from the planet after the rise of the PC and client-sever computing. Some employees within those companies might even have foreseen their firms’ dark fates, but the organizations in which they toiled were unable to rescue themselves.

They were all huge successes, billion-dollar companies, but, in the face of radical shifts in industry and market dynamics, they couldn’t change who and what they were.  The industry graveyard is full of the carcasses of company’s that were once enormously successful.

Am I saying this is what will happen to Cisco in an era of software-defined networking? No, I’m not prepared to make that bet. Cisco should be able to adapt and adjust better than the aforementioned companies were able to do, but it’s not a given. Just because Cisco is dominant in the networking industry today doesn’t mean that it will be dominant forever. As the old investment disclaimer goes, past performance does not guarantee future results. What’s more, Cisco has shown a fallibility of late that was not nearly as apparent in its boom years more than a decade ago.

Early Days, Promising Future

Finally, I’m not sure that Ferro is correct when he says Open Network Foundation’s (ONF) board members and its biggest service providers, including Google, will achieve CapEx but not OpEx savings with SDN. We really don’t know whether these companies are deriving OpEx savings because they’re keeping what they do with their operations and infrastructure highly confidential. Suffice it to say, they see compelling reasons to move away from buying their networking gear from the industry’s leading vendors, and they see similarly compelling reasons to embrace SDN.

Ferro ends his piece with two statements, the first of which I agree with wholeheartedly:

“That is the future of Software Defined Networking – better, dynamic, flexible and business focussed networking. But probably not much cheaper in the long run.”

As for that last statement, I believe there is insufficient evidence on which to render a verdict. As we’ve noted before, these are early days for SDN.

Google Move Could Cause Collateral Damage for RIM

In a move that demonstrates Google’s willingness to embrace mobile-device heterogeneity in the larger context of a strategic mandate, Google today announced that it would bring improved mobile-device management (MDM) functionality to its Google Apps business customers.

No Extra Charge

On the Official Google Enterprise Blog, Hong Zhang, a Google software engineer, wrote:

“Starting today, comprehensive mobile device management is available at no extra charge to Google Apps for Business, Government and Education users. Organizations large and small can manage Android, iOS and Windows Mobile devices right from the Google Apps control panel, with no special hardware or software to manage.

In addition to our existing mobile management capabilities, IT administrators can now see a holistic overview of all mobile devices that are syncing with Google Apps, and revoke access to individual devices as needed.

Organizations can also now define mobile policies such as password requirements and roaming sync preferences on a granular basis by user group.

Also available today, administrators have the ability to gain insights into mobile productivity within their organizations, complete with trends and analytics.”

Gradual Enhancements

Google gradually has enhanced its MDM functionality for Google Apps. In the summer of 2010, the company announced several basic MDM controls for Google Apps, and today’s announcement adds to those capabilities.

Addressing the bring-your-own device (BYOD) phenomenon and the larger theme of consumerization of IT amid proliferating enterprise mobility, Google appears to be getting into the heterogeneous (not just Android) MDM space as a means of retaining current Google Apps business subscribers and attracting new ones.

Means Rather Than End

At least for now, Google is offering its MDM services at no charge to Google Apps business subscribers. That suggests Google sees MDM as a means of providing support for Google Apps rather than as a lucrative market in its own right. Google isn’t trying to crush standalone MDM vendors. Instead, its goal seems to be to preclude Microsoft, and perhaps even Apple, from making mobile inroads against Google Apps.

Of course, many VC-funded MDM vendors do see a lucrative market in what they do, and they might be concerned about Google’s encroachment on their turf. Officially, they’ll doubtless contend that Google is offering a limited range of MDM functionality exclusively on its Google Apps platform. They might also point out that Google, at least for now, isn’t offering support for RIM BlackBerry devices. On those counts, strictly speaking, they’d be right.

Nonetheless, many Google Apps subscribers might feel that the MDM services Google provides, even without further enhancements, are good enough for their purposes. If that happens, it will cut into the revenue and profitability of standalone MDM vendors.

Not Worrying About RIM

Those vendors will still have an MDM market beyond the Google Apps universe in which to play, but one wonders whether Microsoft, in defense of its expansive Office and Office 365 territory, might follow Google’s lead. Apple, which derives so much of its revenue from its iOS-based devices and comparatively little from Internet advertising or personal-productivity applications, would seem less inclined to embrace heterogeneous mobile-device management.

Finally, there’s the question of RIM. As mentioned above, Google has not indicated MDM support for RIM’s BlackBerry devices, whether of the legacy variety or the forthcoming BBX vintage. Larry Dignan at ZDNet thinks Google has jolted RIM’s MDM aspirations, but I think that’s an incidental rather than desired outcome. The sad fact is, I don’t think Google spends many cycles worrying about RIM.

Can Dell Think Outside the Box?

Michael Dell has derived great pleasure from HP’s apparent decision to spin off its PC business. As he has been telling the Financial Times and others recently, Dell (the company) believes having a PC business will be a critical differentiator as it pulls together and offers complete IT solutions to enterprise, service-provider, and SMB customers.

Hardware Edge?

Here’s what Dell had to say to the Financial Times about his company’s hardware-based differentiation:

 “We are very distinct from some of our competitors. We believe the devices and the hardware still matter as part of the complete, end-to-end solution . . . . Think about the scale economies in our business. As a company spins off its PC business, it goes from one of the top buyers in the world of disk drives and processors and memory chips to not being one of the top five. And that raises the cost of making servers and storage products. Ultimately we believe that presents an enormous opportunity for us and you can be sure we are going to seize it.”

Well, perhaps. I don’t know the intimate details of Dell’s PC economies of scale or its server-business costs, nor do I know what HP’s server-business costs will be when (and if) it eventually spins off its PC business. What I do know, however, is that IBM doesn’t seem to have difficulty competing and selling servers as integral parts of its solutions portfolio; nor does Cisco seem severely handicapped as it grows its server business without a PC product line.

Consequences of Infatuation

I suspect there’s more to Dell’s attachment to PCs than pragmatic dollars-and-cents business logic. I think Michael Dell likes PCs, that he understands them and their business more than he understands the software or services market. If I am right in those assumptions, they don’t suggest that Dell necessarily is wrong to stay in the PC business or that it will fail in selling software and services.

Still, it’s a company mindset that could inhibit Dell’s transition to a world driven increasingly by the growing commercial influence of cloud-service providers, the consumerizaton of IT, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the value inherent in software that provides automation and intelligent management of “dumb” industry-standard hardware boxes.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the “PC is dead.” Obviously, the PC is not dead, nor is it on life support.

In citing market research suggesting that two billion of them will be sold in 2014, Michael Dell is right to argue that there’s still strong demand for PCs worldwide.  While tablets are great devices for the consumption of content and media, they are not ideal devices for creating content — such as writing anything longer than a brief email message, crafting a presentation, or working on a spreadsheet, among other things.  Although it’s possible many buyers of tablets don’t create or supply content, and therefore have no need for a keyboard-equipped PC, I tend to think there still is and will be a substantial market for devices that do more than facilitate the passive consumption of information and entertainment.

End . . . or Means to an End?

Notwithstanding the PC market’s relative health, the salient question here is whether HP or Dell can make any money from the business of purveying them. HP decided it wanted the PC’s wafer-thin margins off its books as it drives a faster transition to software and services, whereas Dell has decided that it can live with the low margins and the revenue infusion that accompanies them. In rationalizing that decision, Michael Dell has said that “software is great, but you have to run it on something.”

There’s no disputing that fact, obviously, but I do wonder whether Dell is philosophically disposed to think outside the box, figuratively and literally. Put another way, does Dell see hardware as a container or receptacle of primary value, or does it see it as a necessary, relatively low-value conduit through which higher-value software-based services will increasingly flow?

I could be wrong, but Michael Dell still seems to see the world through the prism of the box, whether it be a server or a PC.

For me, Dell’s decision to maintain his company’s presence in PCs is beside the point. What’s important is whether he understands where the greatest business value will reside in the years to come, and whether he and his company can remain focused enough to conceive and execute a strategy that will enable them to satisfy evolving customer requirements.

Limits to Consumerization of IT

At GigaOm, Derrick Harris is wondering about the limits of consumerization of IT for enterprise applications. It’s a subject that warrants consideration.

My take on consumerization of IT is that it makes sense, and probably is an unstoppable force, when it comes to the utilization of mobile hardware such as smartphones and tablets (the latter composed primarily and almost exclusively of iPads these days).

This is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Employees are happier, not to mention more productive and engaged, when using their own computing and communications devices. Employers benefit because they don’t have to buy and support mobile devices for their staff.  Both groups win.

Everybody Wins

Moreover, mobile device management (MDM) and mobile-security suites, together with various approaches to securing applications and data, mean that the security risks of allowing employees to bring their devices to work have been sharply mitigated. In relation to mobile devices, the organizational rewards of IT consumerization — greater employee productivity, engaged and involved employees, lower capital and operating expenditures — outweigh the security risks, which are being addressed by a growing number of management and security vendors who see a market opportunity in making the practice safer.

In other areas, though, the case in favor of IT consumerization is not as clear. In his piece, Harris questions whether VMware will be successful with a Dropbox-like application codenamed Project Octopus. He concludes that those already using Dropbox will be reluctant to swap it for a an enterprise-sanctioned service that provides similar features, functionality, and benefits. He posits that consumers will want to control the applications and services they use, much as they determine which devices they bring to work.

Data and Applications: Different Proposition

However, the circumstances and the situations are different. As noted above, there’s diminishing risk for enterprise IT in allowing employees to bring their devices to work.  Dropbox, and consumer-oriented data-storage services in general, is an entirely different proposition.

Enterprises increasingly have found ways to protect sensitive corporate data residing on and being sent to and from mobile devices, but consumer-oriented products like Dropbox do an end run around secure information-management practices in the enterprises and can leave sensitive corporate information unduly exposed. The enterprise cost-benefit analysis for a third-party service like Dropbox shows risks outweighing potential rewards, and that sets up a dynamic where many corporate IT departments will mandate and insist upon company-wide adoption of enterprise-class alternatives.

Just as I understand why corporate minders acceded to consumerization of IT in relation to mobile devices, I also fully appreciate why corporate IT will draw the line at certain types of consumer-oriented applications and information services.

Consumerization of IT is a real phenomenon, but it has its limits.