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Robbins' appointment signals Cisco's strategic shift

Cisco makes top executive change at a fascinating time for the vendor.

Cisco announced that CEO John Chambers will step down July 26, to be succeeded by veteran Cisco sales executive Chuck Robbins, the company's current senior vice president of worldwide operations. The leadership change is taking place at a time when the networking industry is experiencing its own disruptive transition, thanks to software-defined networking (SDN), open source technologies and white-box switching.

Chambers has been Cisco's CEO for roughly 20 years, a rare feat in the volatile technology industry. Under his leadership, the company has transformed from a small routing specialist into the world's most dominant networking vendor, with commanding market shares in multiple segments. Industry observers have been anticipating Chambers' retirement for years, and he has chosen to depart at a fascinating time. Cisco's core business—networking—is in the midst of a major upheaval.

SDN has splintered a once-monolithic approach to switching and routing. Led by customers (as seen at events such as the Open Networking User Group), SDN is many things to many people. There are disagreements over what shape SDN will take as it is adopted, but there is one thing that many people can agree on: Enterprises need a new way to network their infrastructure.

Users are demanding networks become more agile

For one thing, cloud, mobility and the overall competitive business environment has prompted enterprises to demand networks that are more agile; the various approaches to SDN are aimed at addressing that need. Some may choose Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). Others may use network virtualization overlays like those VMware NSX or Nuage Networks offer. Still others may follow a more purist approach to SDN, using OpenFlow-based networks from Big Switch Networks or NEC.

But the issue is bigger than which flavor of SDN you choose. The economics are changing, too. White-box switching is threatening Cisco's profit margins in some niche markets. Dell, Juniper and HP are embracing white-box economics. Open source technology is also encroaching on Cisco's vertically integrated, proprietary technology.

Chambers has steered Cisco through this tumult so far. While some Wall Street analysts see chinks in Cisco's armor, it's clear to many that Cisco has been responding to its various existential threats with alacrity. We know about the spinout companies like Insieme, which led to ACI, but there is more that we don't know. Why, for instance, did Cisco marketing executives accidentally release material that revealed support for Open Networking Install Environment (ONIE) on Cisco's Nexus 9000 switches? ONIE is a hallmark of bare-metal, white-box switching environments. Things are brewing inside Cisco and we all know it.

Robbins' appointment a signal that company is focused on execution?

Cisco has appointed a sales executive, rather than a technology visionary, to lead. Some may wonder if this signals that the company will focus on execution rather than vision. But the vision may already be in place. For all the pain it caused, such as the deaths of products like Application Control Engine and the layoffs of thousands of employees, Chambers is probably satisfied with the position Cisco is in today. But there is only so much he can control.

Many key executives, especially those who were tapped as heirs apparent, will likely leave in the wake of Chambers' departure. There will be disruption. There will be handwringing. There will be uncertainty about the future. But Cisco has been preparing for this transition for years.

Cisco Live, the company's grand customer event, will take place in San Diego about a month before the leadership change. CIOs, network architects and rank-and-file admins from thousands of Cisco customers will be at that show. Undoubtedly, Chambers and Robbins will take the keynote stage for a figurative passing of the torch. It will also be an opportunity for Robbins to share his ideas on a post-Chambers Cisco. We will all be watching.


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