Daily Archives: September 24, 2012

Cisco Puts ACE in the Hole (or Maybe Not)

Although Cisco reportedly confirmed that it will discontinue further development of its Application Control Engine (ACE), a Cisco representative now says that it isn’t the case, and that ACE will be developed further.

Regardless of what Cisco eventually does with ACE, we have not seen the last of the company in the application-delivery controller (ADC) market. In fact, the latest indications, as published in articles at SearchNetworking and The Register, suggest that Cisco, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, will be back.

The salient question is whether Cisco’s next foray into the ADC market, regardless of the form it takes, will produce results any different from its previous efforts, which were catalogued by yours truly about two years ago. Indeed, Cisco has been beaten consistently and repeatedly by F5 Networks in load balancing. Cisco’s losing streak goes back more than a decade, and it is likely to continue if the company stumbles back into the market halfheartedly.

While there is no question that F5 has gotten the better of Cisco continually in load balancing, a more interesting question relates to why Cisco has failed. One line of reasoning suggests that Cisco neither understands nor appreciates Layer 4-7 network services, including load balancing and WAN optimization. Cisco, this argument asserts, is a switching and routing company, proficient at layers 2 and 3, but woefully out of its comfort zone higher up the stack.

Bigger Picture

There’s some legitimacy to that argument, but it doesn’t provide a complete picture. More often than not, Cisco’s load-balancing products and technologies were predicated on the fruits of acquisitions rather than on organic innovation. That is true going all the way back to the long-dead LocalDirector, which was based on technology Cisco obtained through the acquisition of Network Translation Inc. in 1996. Subsequent to that, Cisco acquired former F5 competitor ArrowPoint Communications for $5.7 billion in 2000.  The personnel in these load-balancing companies clearly understood network services, even if the old-guard switching and routing stalwarts at Cisco did not.

So, we’re left with two possibilities. Cisco made bad acquisition choices, effectively acquiring the wrong load-balancing companies, or Cisco failed to execute properly in taking the products and technologies of the acquired companies to market. I’m leaning toward the latter scenario.

Cisco’s primary problem in areas such as load balancing and WAN optimization, as it has been expressed to me by former Cisco executives, is that the company strategically understands that it needs to play in these markets, but that it invariably fails to make the commitment necessary to success. Why is that?

A Matter of Focus and Priority

It comes down to market sizes and business priorities. Switching and routing always ruled the roost, and the resources, at Cisco. That’s still true today, perhaps even to a greater extent now that the company is coming under renewed attack in its core markets after failing to break new ground in many of what CEO John Chambers called the company’s market adjacencies. (Flip, anyone?)

Fundamentally, nothing seems to have changed. Cisco might take another run at ADCs, but there’s no reason to suppose that it would end differently this time unless Cisco makes a sustained and uncompromising commitment to the market and the technologies. Nothing less will do.

Cisco can be sure that is ADC competitors, as in the past, will not give it any breaks.

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Questioning SDN Cynicism

A few months ago, I noticed that the networking cognoscenti were becoming jaded about software-defined networking (SDN). To be fair, the networking cognoscenti can skew toward disgruntlement, so it was no surprise to see this restive bunch cast a jaundiced eye toward networking’s greatest, latest hope.

I consider myself among the skeptical and wary, always cognizant that vendors can be inclined to advance a self-serving agenda that sometimes is designed to satisfy their own near-term interests over the long-term objectives of their customers. That works particularly well when the vendors can trick the customers into believing that they’re actually looking out for them. As our ancient forebears knew, caveat emptor was more than a catchphrase.

Asking Why

All of which brings me to a puzzling aspect of the current disaffection with SDN, expressed most recently in a highly readable and strongly recommended post by Ethan Banks of PacketPushers fame. My question, which I put to Banks to and to everyone else for whom SDN has become an annoyance, is simple: Are you really upset with SDN, or are you actually frustrated with the way the term has been used and abused by the vendor community?

It’s not an academic or an idle question.

One should remember that SDN, properly defined and understood, is a creation of a customer-centric consortium, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), not a marketing or technical construct espoused by a given networking vendor or even by a group of vendors. If the term “SDN” is being bastardized and demeaned, it is not the ONF that is doing it. More directly, if the term is being cheapened, the devaluation is occurring at the hands of vendors.

But why? There are at least two possibilities. One is that certain networking vendors want to exploit the positive connotations, the afterglow, that surrounded software-defined networking (SDN). According to this theory, the damage they’re inflicting to the SDN brand is unintentional and ironic: They wanted to ride SDN’s relatively pristine coattails, not pull it into a seedy gutter of disrepute. I would be inclined to accept this theory if vendors adopted SDN definitions that accorded with that of the ONF, but. for the most part, that’s not what’s happened.

Agents Provocateurs: Back in Action 

Instead, vendors typically recast SDN in forms that correspond with product roadmaps and company-specific strategic objectives.  The result has been market confusion and cynicism, understandably so. When a term is spun to mean practically anything to anyone, it risks losing its specificity and its relevance.

Allow me suggest that at least a few vendors would be neither inconvenienced nor unduly troubled to see SDN’s identity fractured and splintered like a broken mirror.  It would not be the first time that fear, uncertainty, and doubt were deployed as agents provocateurs in a commercial context.

Nonetheless, coming back to my question above, I would counsel that we think carefully about whether our annoyance is really with SDN or with the way the term “SDN” is being manipulated and distorted by the vendor community.

As always, it is helpful to diagnose not only what is happening, but to try to understand why it is happening, too.