It’s been awhile since I’ve been excited about Cisco and its networking strategy. While Cisco remains prominent in market share, it’s been Arista and Juniper that have dominated the networking innovation conversation. What do I mean when I say network innovation? I’m not talking bigger/better pipes or flashy new marketing products but rather customer-centric solutions that try to tackle the market’s real challenges today. But for the first time in a long time, Cisco has caught my attention. Big changes have started to ripple through Cisco as it slims down one of the industry’s largest routing, switching, and wireless product portfolios and strives to:

  • Untangle a mountain of complexity from acquisitions. Forrester’s Let Business Outcomes Drive Network Design report lays out the case that networking companies can no longer serve all industries and deliver solutions for every type of customer. Cisco recognizes this. It acquired a lot of companies over the last 20 years, which bogged down its ability to react to market changes such as SDWAN. Coordinating sales, research, support, and other activities across multiple products became too difficult — with CEO Chuck Robbins acknowledging that customers deploying its products has become an Achilles’ heel for the company.
  • Address the rise of businesswide fabrics. Almost 10 years ago, Forrester developed five networking tenets for the next-generation network. One of the tenets was the idea that businesses would create a consistent homogeneous network across the business. Traditional network segments defined a certain type of switch — such as data center, campus, and remote office LANs. This all changed with the internet of things and the dispersion of data and applications across private data centers, public clouds, and edge environments. A consistent way to manage, automate, and monitor would emerge. Cisco recently acknowledged this concept by merging Meraki, Catalyst, and routing (SDWAN) product lines last year, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. This change from the company’s mantra of “customer choice” is massive.

What’s relatively new and a bigger deal to me is the emergence of the Nexus Dashboard, once called Data Center Network Manager and Fabric Manager. The product aims to combine the Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) world and traditional Nexus world together. It’s the first step in addressing a businesswide fabric. The company has to eliminate multiple solutions within each segment.

I’m sure someone might argue that Cisco’s proprietary approach to networking has caused it most of its issues. But closed solutions aren’t always bad. A lot of networking vendors that tout the cons of closed systems offer their own. For example, most offer closed Wi-Fi and Zero Trust Edge (WAN and security) solutions. You would be hard-pressed to mix and match SDWAN appliances/routers within SDWAN solutions or APIs from various companies without having to use a management system from each one.

I digress. Ultimately, the idea of treating a data center as an exclusive little island was never going to work, as I highlighted in my 2013 blog, Networking Is A Hot Mess. Since the emergence of OpenFlow and controller-based solutions, Forrester has advised clients against embracing that approach, which we highlighted in the 2013 research paper about Cisco’s ACI announcement and release. Since then, the graveyard has filled up with controller-based software-defined networking (SDN) solutions such as Big Switch Controller, OpenDaylight, and Juniper QFabric, to name a few. Ultimately, Forrester predicts that ACI and VMware’s NSX will close the controller-based SDN chapter for that era.

With the release of Cisco Nexus Dashboard, the company has entered the businesswide fabric race against Arista and Juniper, each of which have a sizable lead. To learn more about businesswide fabrics and what characteristics next-generation networks should support, please read Forrester’s report, Five Tenets Define Virtual Network Infrastructure, A Bold New Business Network. Keep an eye out for another blog on other markets embracing businesswide networking fabrics.