Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers last week outlined his company's goals, chief among them to exploit voice over IP and highlighted its biggest challenges, notably gaining success in the storage market.
Other important directions stated by Chambers and other executives at Cisco's annual analysts meeting included moving key products off their current Windows-based platforms and onto Linux, and building better multifunction, integrated ASICs to boost system reliability.
Conference attendees also were given peeks at new products. One was an application for better managing multiservice blades in a Catalyst 6500 chassis. Another offering promises to make video calling as easy as dialing a Cisco IP phone.
The CEO discussed the company's six advanced technology areas, which include IP telephony, security, storage, optical, wireless and home network products. Each of these businesses has the potential to grow to US$1 billion in revenue for the company, Chambers said.
IP telephony is one advanced technology that could be at the brink of hitting this goal. This is because most PBXs in corporate networks are about 9 years old, on average, he said, and upgrading from traditional PBXs to IP PBXs is a foregone conclusion among many IT executives.
"IP telephony is one of those applications that probably in many (corporations) architecturally has already been decided," Chambers said.
Such technologies will be important factors in Cisco's stated goal of 10 percent to 15 percent growth over the next five years. But Chambers said not all the company's three major product categories -- routing and switching, advanced technologies and service providers -- have to become stellar business lines to accomplish this.
"If we grow two out of the three, we will do well," Chambers said. "If one does well, and two do OK, we will also get there."
In the advanced technology area, Chambers said Cisco won't acquire large competitors to boost its market share. If the company did that, he said, "that would mean that our products didn't work."
Instead, Cisco will continue to "acquire small and partner large." An example of this is the storage arena, where Cisco recently acquired switch start-up Andiamo Systems (which resulted in the Cisco MDS 9000 storage switch). Chambers said Cisco has since established partner relationships with most of the leading storage vendors, such as EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Network Appliance Inc. and Veritas Software Corp.
But storage also was highlighted as one of Cisco's biggest challenges among the advanced technologies. In a separate presentation, Cisco showed that the firm had only about 7 percent market share in the total storage switch market.
"Storage will be bumpy," Chambers said. "When you move into a new market, it takes some time to get down all the necessary manufacturing and channel aspects and processes up to speed."
On enterprise IT spending, Chambers said large companies are not rushing back to fill out huge purchase orders on infrastructure. Instead, companies are looking at strategic areas that can improve productivity in the short term - such as security, IP communications and wireless.
"CIOs won't sign off on anything that has more than an 18-month (ROI)," Chambers said.
He further defined Cisco's message to its enterprise customers: Businesses should stop thinking about buying point products and begin to look at network purchases (of, namely, Cisco gear) as whole systems.
"Buying separate, best-of-breed point products," Chambers said, will end up costing companies more in the end in terms of implementation and support costs.
But that notion didn't sit well with some attendees.
There are questions about Cisco's intent to get closer to customers as a services and integration company, says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc. "Cisco says customers aren't looking for best-of-breed products, but (products) that work together as a system," he said. "So does that mean customers have to compromise in areas where Cisco may not be the market leader in a certain technology? Who's going to do that?"
"That's a bit of a marketing spin when they talk about the idea of systems instead of point products," says Ray Mota, an analyst with Synergy Research Group Inc. "Most enterprises already have infrastructures in place and are looking for point products for various applications."
Meanwhile, Mario Mazzola, senior vice president for development, discussed some of the design and engineering changes happening at Cisco that are aimed at delivering products that work together more seamlessly and at lower prices.
Among several topics, Mazzola outlined Cisco's intent to move from "closed systems to open systems" on technologies such as IP voice and messaging applications -- such as its CallManager IP PBX and Unity Unified Messaging software.
He said this will involve migrating from a Windows server model toward a Linux server and Linux-based appliance model. This will make such products more resilient and flexible, he added. Some users and industry analysts have criticized Cisco's use of a Windows-based phone system, which they say is more susceptible to Internet attacks and worms, and could put corporate phone networks at risk.
Mazzola also discussed the company's move toward unifying the software and silicon put into its products. This involves a move to a more common set of ASICs and components across product lines, and more commonality in software running across product lines. Mazzola said these moves will make products interoperate better.
"This will be necessary in the shift from [product-level] resiliency to system resiliency," he said.
Mike Volpi, Cisco's senior vice president for routing technology, added to this idea, talking about ASICs, which can be reprogrammed after deployment. He said Cisco is working on ASIC technology that will let chip functions be written in standard programming language -- such as C and C++ -- and then compiled and loaded into silicon.
"(Programmable ASICs on Cisco hardware) will allow new services and better interoperability to be deployed faster in the field," Volpi said. Future examples of this could take the form of a security appliance ASIC that could be reprogrammed with the latest intrusion-detection technology.
Along with the announcement of a new line of service provider 12000 series routers and 7600 edge routers, glimpses of some new enterprise-focused products were sprinkled throughout the event.
Cisco released upgrades for the 12000 series that add 40G bit/sec of bandwidth from a module slot to the router's backplane. This could help service providers deploy multiple OC-192 ports on a router. Analysts say the router will help Cisco keep pace with Juniper and other smaller rivals as it develops its next-generation router, expected next year.
New software was demonstrated that could help administrators better manage modules in a Catalyst 6500 chassis. The software lets users graphically configure virtual LAN and IP address settings; view configuration data; and view performance for Cisco IDS blades, firewall blades or VPN concentrator modules inside a Catalyst chassis.
The software also can be used to configure multi-layer-switching functions in the box. Currently, advanced Catalyst 6500 modules must be configured as separate devices inside the chassis, either by command line or individual configuration tools for each product. This software is expected to be released in 2004.
Cisco also talked about an IP video software integration client, also to be released in the new year, for integrating video into Cisco IP phone conversations. The client, used with a standard USB PC camera, will synchronize IP video with a Cisco IP phone call without requiring any extra button-pushing or mouse-clicking.