A new Cisco network management strategy: Cisco Prime

Cisco Prime, the new Cisco network management strategy and brand, comes with lots of promises about interconnected management products alongside hardware and support services.

For all the criticism Cisco Systems receives, the one place the company has truly stumbled has been in network management. So far, the Cisco network management strategy has centered on disappointing products like CiscoWorks, which for years has drawn the ire of otherwise loyal customers.

Now Cisco wants to flip the script on its network management legacy, this week launching Cisco Prime, an umbrella brand for both enterprise and service provider network management products that are application aware. Executives have plainly said they want customers to know that Cisco is a software company, and this network management strategy is a major element of that.

The Cisco Prime brand shifts away from the company's old device-centric view of network management, in favor of a "service-centric management framework," according to Sujai Hajela, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Enterprise and Commercial Management Business Unit.

"What happens today if someone is having a video conferencing session and there is some pixelization or jitter? [Engineers] go right to the infrastructure level and start looking at gigabytes and terabytes of data, trying to figure out where the user's call is on the network and what the problem is that they are experiencing," Hajela said.

But starting in the network and working one's way up into applications and services is no way to troubleshoot, he said. Instead, engineers need tools that allow them to start with an application or service-level view and work their way down to the network armed with more context for a problem.

"The applications, services and infrastructure— these layers know about the users. So if I use that as a handle and go inside the network, looking from the user down rather than the network up, it allows me to see that someone is having a problem and how that translates to Layer 3 and Layer 2 and go to the segment of the network where the problem is," he said.

Cisco's suite of network management products will work together across domains to provide this service-centric approach, he added.

The initial rollout of the Cisco Prime brand includes updates to two existing Cisco network management products and two new tools.

  • The LAN Management Solution (LMS) 4.1, formerly known as CiscoWorks and Network Analysis Module (NAM) 5.1, Cisco's performance monitoring and analysis product, have been updated with a look and feel that is consistent with new products in the Cisco Prime portfolio. This way, once users learn one tool, they can manage to use all tools in the family. LMS and NAM are also integrated with other products in the portfolio, providing easy navigation from one tool to the other. Cisco will eventually port the overall capabilities of LMS and NAM to the underlying software architecture of the new Cisco Prime products, according to Marie Hattar, vice president of marketing for Cisco's Borderless Networks business. She did not offer a specific schedule for future updates. List prices for LMS start at $14,995 and for NAM start at $1,500 (deployed on an Integrated Services Router G2) or $59,000 (on a Catalyst 6500 blade).
  • Network Control System (NCS) 1.0 replaces Cisco's Wireless Control System (WCS). The product integrates wireless LAN management with wired network management. NCS list price starts at $14,995.
  • Collaboration Manager (CM) 1.0 is Cisco's new voice and video management system, which gives customers a service-centric view of voice and video sessions, with drill-down capabilities into how individual network devices are affecting performance. CM list price for 10 telepresence codecs is $120,000.

Cisco network management: A history of disappointment

While Cisco's network management products have been shaded by disappointment, the technology remains widely deployed.

"By my accounting, [LMS], it is the most popular network management tool in North America and arguably the planet," said Jim Frey, research director at Enterprise Management Associates. "Everybody's got it. When they buy Cisco gear, they end up getting LMS, too."

But mass consumption has left plenty of opportunities for users to be disappointed.

Randy Scadden is a longtime customer who gave up on the Cisco network management products years ago in favor of third-party network management vendors like SolarWinds. "I found that the information [CiscoWorks]  provided wasn't all that much more detailed than what I could get from a good SNMP-based network management solution," said Scadden, an IT engineer with Idaho Technology Inc., a Salt Lake City-based manufacturer of biomedical testing equipment.

"The one thing I can say I didn't like specifically about Cisco's network management software was the fact that not only am I buying an incredibly expensive piece of network hardware along with a SmartNET support contract, they also want me to fork out just as much for their inferior network management software,” said Scadden. “Unless things have changed on that front here in the past few years, there really isn't a great value proposition that a Cisco-based network management solution can provide."

A lot of networking pros agree with Scadden, according to Andre Kindness, senior research analyst with Forrester Research.  In fact, Cisco has burned some bridges with customers with these management products, and Cisco Prime is about building those bridges back up, Kindness said.

"A lot of [networking] vendors have this issue, but Cisco was probably the one people complained about the most," Kindness said. "I don't know if anyone uses [CiscoWorks] for anything outside of configuring devices. Things like network fault management and security, they would turn to other vendors for that."

Cisco's mothballing of its Cisco Security Monitoring, Analysis, and Response System (CS-MARS), the lynchpin in its Self-Defending Network architecture from a few years ago, was a stark example of its management downfalls.

"That concept was about software and automation. That fell through the cracks. It's an example where software hasn't turned out exactly like they architected it and messaged it out," Kindness said.

New rules for Cisco network management

Cisco's latest tactic is to create a unified network management brand with a new set of rules. Hajela describes these rules as "common operational attributes" that every Cisco Prime product must have.

"It allows a customer to be managing a service, which may need the assistance of two, three or four of the products. It's about managing the service which transcends the boundaries of these multiple products," he said.

Hajela listed six common operational attributes for Cisco Prime:

  1. Each Prime product will be available as either a virtual or physical appliance.
  2. Prime products will feature "Integrated Best Practices," essentially Cisco validated designs for different services such as TrustSec and EnergyWise, which have been translated from documentation into templates that engineers can quickly put into practice from Cisco network management products.
  3. Cisco Prime products will interact with Cisco Technical Assistance Center (CTAC), the company's technical support operation. This integration will allow network managers to generate a CTAC ticket from within their network management interface, for instance.
  4. They will feature an optimized experience—not just a common look and feel, but a consistent experience of how you drill down into different issues from each platform.
  5. A Cisco Prime product will have to integrate its lifecycle with all other Cisco Prime products so that there is always full interoperability among them.
  6. All Prime products will feature device support of new Cisco hardware products from the first day of their release.

Until now, users complained that LMS and other tools coming from Cisco all had a different look and feel, Frey said. "If you learned one, it didn't mean you'd be able to use another.  They didn't always come out and have support for newer Cisco gear, either. There was always a lag before management products were updated. Now Cisco says they are not allowed to release a new hardware solution unless the network management tools group has added support for it in LMS and related products," he added.

Next, Cisco will have to integrate some of its other critical management products into the Cisco Prime model, Kindness said. He would like to see Cisco remedy the fact that its new data center network management product for both LAN and SAN management announced last month was not a part of Prime. Cisco also needs to add its management software for the Nexus switching line and its Unified Computing System servers to the Prime fold as well.

"They're doing this in baby steps," Kindness said. "Their big problem in the past was trying to boil the ocean and doing everything at once. They would end up getting nothing good accomplished."

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

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