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Cisco customers wrestle with ACI challenges

Cisco customers grapple with the network architectural changes required in deploying new products like Application Centric Infrastructure.

Cisco's success depends on companies understanding how its latest networking gear can prepare their data centers...

for business-altering IT trends like cloud and mobile computing.

Thus far, Cisco's largest customers are dazed and confused.

Cisco attacked the problem head on this week at an event held in Allen, Texas, home to one of two data centers Cisco has in the Lone Star State. The company gathered some of its biggest customers to get feedback on its newest technology.

"I need help," an IT executive from an energy company pleaded during a question-and-answer session attended by Cisco Chief Executive John Chambers. "I'm trying to bring outcomes for my business and I don't have all the answers and I don't have all the right talent."

Cisco asked that the names of the companies that spoke during the Q&A be withheld. Many of them were not told in advance that a few reporters were invited.

Customers struggle with change

Cisco customers wanted to learn more about the vendor's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), Cisco's defense against software-defined networking approaches from rivals HP, Arista Networks and VMware. The hardware-centric ACI encompasses security, data center management and cloud service integration.

Attendees believed ACI could tackle the data center challenges brought on by the latest IT trends. What confused them was how it could reduce networking costs. No one was interested in deploying the technology for its own sake.

"Innovation? We'd love to be there, but we're trying to keep the wheels on the bus, so innovation sometimes is difficult," an executive from a major healthcare provider said.

Comments like those from the healthcare provider are common, Nemertes Research analyst John Burke said. Most companies are not "hot and heavy to do the transition [to ACI] soon. Too much rip and replace."

Most large companies are equally interested in alternative products from other suppliers, Burke said. VMware's NSX virtual networking product is on companies' shortlists, because they believe it can be used "more quickly, more easily and at a lower cost."

ACI requires Cisco customers to think differently about networking. In the past, Cisco provided the traditional switch and router, which customers deployed. ACI demands that customers revamp their network architecture, said Daniel Conde, analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group.

"Some of the confusion may occur because ACI requires people to have a newer way of looking at things," Conde said.

Cisco changes sales strategy

Cisco changed how it sells products in order to hold the hands of customers brave enough to take the ACI plunge. The company has consultants that discuss the customers' networking needs first, and then recommend technology from Cisco and its partners. Cisco also stays with the customer through the deployment.

"We sell architectures," Joseph Bradley, vice president of Cisco Internet of Everything Practice, said in an interview. "John [Chambers] is really big on that."

This approach interested manufacturing conglomerate Honeywell.

"I'd be very, very interested in drilling into that more and understanding how they go through that [consulting] process and what they can actually show us in terms of cost reductions in our organization," said Aaron Hicks, Honeywell's director of global IT operations.

Serving companies like Honeywell in a time of major changes in networking will require better "co-innovation" between Cisco and customers, Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby said.

The company is working with customers on adapting products for specific industries. One such program is called the Cisco Hyper Innovation Living Labs.

Cisco is also open to developing technology with customers, if both companies can benefit from the outcome. Such partnerships, however, are tricky.

"You want to mesh with your customers, but there's only so much you can do with that before it messes up shareholders," Jacoby said. "You have to be able to get a return on it."

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