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Cisco's troubles: Start talking to more network engineers

Reuters got its hands on an internal memo that Cisco CEO John Chambers emailed to all of Cisco’s employees, a memo that was possibly meant to leak into the media and to Cisco’s customers. Mission accomplished. As reported by Reuters, Chambers promised employees that he and his lieutenants would restore Cisco’s flagging fortunes with increased operational discipline and more rigorous focus on Cisco’s five core businesses: core routing, switching and services; collaboration; video; data center virtualization and the cloud; and architecture.

The memo was long on strategy and vision and short on specifics. I have no doubt the specifics will make headlines very soon.  Chambers warned employees that Cisco will “take some bold steps” and “make tough decisions.” It’s hard to say what that means. Will he sell off or shutter certain businesses that aren’t performing? Will Cisco buy more companies to fix gaps in its product portfolio or replace disappointing products?

I’m not a Cisco customer. I’m just a journalist who talks to a lot of Cisco customers, analysts and Cisco employees. All I can offer are impressions I’ve received from those conversations. I will say this: Cisco is good at talking to CIOs, but it’s stumbled recently in how it talks to networking professionals. And networking professionals are Cisco’s core customers. Cisco has done a good job of presenting architecture to CIOs. Borderless Networks really appeals to CIOs, for instance. But routing and switching needs to be sold to network engineers and network architects. I don’t think that audience is liking the messages it is receiving right now. Usually those messages just lead to more questions.

Just the other day Cisco rolled out a huge slate of data center hardware and software products centered mostly on its Nexus switching line and its Unified Computing System servers. Lots of interesting boxes, like the Nexus 3000. Lots of interesting software and services upgrades, like multihop FCoE support. But overall, there was just too much in the presentation. Too many products at once.

I usually budget 30-45 minutes to talk to a vendor about a product rollout. And most vendors will present me with two or three major hardware or software elements in their news. The presentations are focused. With Cisco, there are 15, 20, 25 different elements. Some of them are completely unrelated to each other. Some products, like the ASA Services Module for the Catalyst 6500, get a single bullet point on a slide. Why can’t that product merit its own press release and briefing? I’d sit down to hear more about it.

When Chambers talks about discipline and focus, this is what I think about. I know that Cisco’s marketing and PR team, which features an army of extremely talented and passionate people, would love to give these smaller products more time – rather than slapping them onto the end of a larger announcement.

I can’t help but think that the same culture that is forcing little ace products to be lost in the shuffle with larger architectural announcements like data center transformation and Borderless Networks is also a problem in the product development and engineering side of the business. And that’s what has many long-time Cisco customers frustrated and worried. That’s why they keep picking on Cisco for buying companies like Pure Digital Technologies, the maker of the Flip camera. Cisco can hand those Flip cameras to VARs at its partner summit and tell them that it’s a good business tool. Maybe Cisco is right about that, but should Cisco really be making the Flip? Network engineers say no.

I’m excited to see what kinds of changes Cisco makes in the coming months. Despite all the doom and gloom, the company is still a leader in most of its markets. It’s still innovating. It still has loyal customers. This is about Cisco staying in that position, not about getting back into that position. To execute on that, Cisco needs to keep talking to the guys who push packets.

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Cisco’s core competence is in routing and switching (which is synonymous to networking). In addition to existing “leader’s position push (LPP)”, Cisco also enjoys status as a “preferred vender” due to excellent “after sale services”. But – with increase in “ICT experienced customer base” - things are changing fast. Emerging shift in market (Customers) demands (1) more intelligent system at affordable cost (capax+opex), has ignited a new race amongst OEM to add / enhance “Intelligence and Automation” into network components needing lesser skilled HR intervention. Intelligent networks would be self-healing system ensuring COOP/COG during catastrophe. (2) Integeration of sectors like irrigation, and agriculture where end nodes are SCADA system and sensors. As a global player - Cisco had upper hand ten years ago when number of countries started their tryst with “networks” and still enjoy the “preferred status”. But they need to perceive shift taking place in this domain (specifically in developing countries) closely, to review and revise their product and market strategy for next 20 years. Food shortage is becoming a major global issue now and will aggravate in coming years. Government, Municipal, corporate and social network will have agriculture and irrigation as an integral part needing effective governance and COOP.