Cisco Borderless Networks: Complete solution or marketing hype?

Cisco's Borderless Networks strategy promises customers a new paradigm for supporting enterprise mobility and ensuring mobile network security. However, network engineers are struggling to understand how a seemingly disparate collection of products fit together.

Cisco has gone full guns blazing on its enterprise mobility initiative Borderless Networks, releasing a slew of new and updated products surrounded by intense marketing hype. Unfortunately, some network engineers just don't seem to understand the message.

Borderless networks – Cisco's most hyped initiative since its data center push –encompasses a broad swath of products, from routers and switches to firewalls, WAN optimization software and VPN clients. With this ecosystem, Cisco claims to offer ubiquitous enterprise mobility with total security.

While many industry observers are impressed by Cisco's efforts to sew its product portfolio into a cohesive solution for open and mobile enterprises, many network engineers see good individual products that are obscured by too much marketing complexity.

"Just tell me about the new products. When I ask people what Borderless Networks means, most of the people I talk to, who are highly technical people, have trouble explaining what this concept is. I just wish Cisco would stop with the marketing lingo and sell me solutions that make sense," said Matthew Norwood, a network architect with a Nashville-based health care enterprise.

The complex marketing overload is not new for Cisco, which is known for releasing multiple products simultaneously and then supporting these drives with confusing 40-slide PowerPoint presentations and elaborate launch events.

"I think they have a good concept," said Brandon Bennett, a network engineer and voice architect with a large Ethernet business services provider. But he said the term Borderless Networks is a meaningless and empty marketing buzz word which no one seems capable of defining. "I view it the same way they marketed the self defending network a few years ago. They made a big marketing push and put their entire product line under that as well. But in the end, it was just a marketing term."

Enterprise mobility and mobile network security: The heart of Borderless Networks

Cisco introduced the concept of Borderless Networks was last year and rolled out its first product under the strategy at RSA early this year: AnyConnect Secure Mobility, a hybrid SSL VPN and 802.1X authentication client. This week's announcements are meant to further define Cisco's mobile enterprise strategy.

"[Ten years ago] work was a place you came to that had walls and you were connected to the network when you were inside those walls. Today those delineations have just dissolved. You have relationships with customers, suppliers and partners. All of them are accessing and participating in a network of trust and they are using any device at any time," said Tom Gillis, Cisco's senior vice president and general manager for security technology.

As a result, network security is evolving beyond the hub-and-spoke model where everything was backhauled to a data center DMZ to have security applied to it, and where users were locked down and only able to touch the Internet through two or three points globally, Gillis said.

"We're seeing an evolution to a network architecture that is much more open; where you touch the Internet in tens or hundreds or thousands of locations," he said. "So we need a security system that can be much more distributed than the security tools of today."

The Borderless Networks products announced this week include:

  • The Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA) 5585-X: Cisco's highest end ASA 5500 series firewall/intrusion prevention system (IPS) appliance to date. It packs 20 Gbps of simultaneous firewall/IPS performance into a 2 RU format with capacity for 10,000 VPN connections and 350,000 new connections per second. It appears to be the lynchpin in enabling the enterprise mobility and mobile network security promises of the Borderless Networks concept. It's built to manage thousands of AnyConnect clients.
  • The Catalyst 4500-E: a new access layer chassis switch that delivers 848 Gbps of bandwidth and up to 100 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports. It comes loaded with hardware-accelerated Borderless Network services software, including Medianet for media optimization, EnergyWise for power management and TrustSec for access control and network security.
  • The ASR 1001 router: a 1RU 5 Gbps router designed for WAN edge and branch office deployments.
  • The Aironet 1040 Series Access Point (AP): a wireless LAN access point with a $495 list price and a simpler feature set than Cisco's more advance access points.
  • CiscoWorks LAN management Solution 4.0: A new version of Cisco's often maligned network management tool, which offers new automation capabilities for deploying, monitoring and troubleshooting the network.
  • WAAS Express: a low-end version of Cisco's WAN optimization software that comes preloaded on its Integrated Services Router (ISR) G2 devices.

Norwood, who designs networks for an enterprise with 5,000 employees, doesn't see how all these products fit together.

"The new AP was a low-end SMB product. So that particular product was kind of odd. It didn't fit in with the new ASR or the WAAS Express. Then you've got the Catalyst 4500-E, a chassis that's been around for a number of years. It's a great access layer device that can aggregate a bunch of phones or desktops, but being able to tie all those products together and say this is the path to the Borderless Network; I don't really make that connection."

Does Borderless Networks speak to CIOs more than network engineers?

The Borderless Networks concept may be flying over the heads of network engineers because it is meant for an entirely different audience: C-level executives, said Andre Kindness, senior analyst with Forrester Research. CIOs are under heavy pressure to adapt to changing business requirements for enterprise mobility and mobile network security while also controlling costs, he explained. As a result, vendors are pitching solutions to MBAs rather than engineers. This is Cisco's "high level message," he explained.

But to back up that message, Cisco's various internal product development groups are working together more than ever before in order to provide better integration across different product lines, Kindness added.

"They're trying to make life easier for engineers whose business rules are changing. There's more seamless integration between wired, wireless and security. "

Translating that bigger picture to networking pros, even highly placed ones, remains a work in progress for Cisco.

" I just want to make the best technical decisions for my company and put the right solutions in place and stay away from the marketing hype. I think they are overhyping these things," Norwood said. "To me it was just a bunch of updated products they released."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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