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Executive Insight: Cisco aims to reduce network complexity

In the first in a series of interviews with prominent executives at major enterprise networking companies, searchNetworking talks with Peter Alexander, Vice President of Enterprise Marketing at Cisco Systems, based in San Jose, Calif. Alexander was instrumental in the development of the company's new Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data (AVVID), which promises to make enterprises more efficient and competitive in today's e-business environment and help enterprises rapidly deploy new services, applications, and technology. He has also gained a reputation as an industry spokesperson on the future of the Internet and convergence, and in September of 2000 was named one of the industry's "Top 50 Smartest People" by Smart Partner magazine. We wanted to find out why.

Despite the recent economic downturn, Cisco has shown remarkable growth in the enterprise market, with a couple of quarters last year exceeding 20%. How is your approach different from many of your competitors, who are either exiting, ignoring or de-emphasizing this market?
Cisco is very focused on the enterprise because we have such a strong relationship with enterprise organizations and have found a way to satisfy their requirements and be very profitable in doing so. We chose very early on not to purely focus on price as the value to our customers but instead to focus on the value of networking and its intelligence and the total cost of ownership. We have grown to significant share of the enterprise market and its emerging requirements by listening to our customers very closely. Most of our ideas actually come from our customers. Much of the competition has changed focus in the last year because a pure price position play in the enterprise didn't add the value that an enterprise is looking for. I do expect some of the competition that may be focused in other areas to turn back to trying to focus on the enterprise because of the lean state of the service provider market, but at the moment Cisco continues to gain market share. Even during the economic uncertainty, we are making gains because the enterprise customer wants the security of a player like Cisco that can weather economic challenges. You have been heavily involved in the development of Cisco's recently announced AVVID architecture. Can you explain AVVID and what its implementation means for enterprise users?
Networks are continuing to become more intelligent, and we continue to see added capability of our networks in content networking, VPN, IP telephony and so on. This can be both confusing and complicated if not implemented in some rational way. AVVID defines an architecture for voice, video and integrated data. It defines how data networks are built for high-availability and high-performance, and then -- if you choose to -- how you add voice and video to that. AVVID is the architectural definition of how all those emerging capabilities can be built together on one common network. It reduces complexity and provides much greater vendor support in how to go about doing it from a design methodology point of view, from a technology choice point of view, and from an operations point of view. We believe that taking an architectural view is the way to go because the scale is so large. You don't build a house without consulting an architect -- if you did it one room at a time, it would come out a shambles. In the same vein, taking an architectural approach to networking will create order as new technologies are added, and AVVID is about that. Is there any worry among customers or end-users that the Cisco may scale back or spin off the enterprise networking business?
Our customers are confident in Cisco and they absolutely should be. We are 100% dedicated to continued focus on the enterprise. If anything, the changes in the market have reinforced to us our responsibility to the enterprise customer. What is the upcoming product or technology that will have the most impact on the way corporations manage their network infrastructure?
There are many important emerging technologies, but I would say the single largest impact is the emergence of IP telephony. IP telephony, in addition to mission-critical applications, is changing the way that corporations manage their infrastructure because they increasingly have to manage for very high availability. IP telephony has tremendous benefits in terms of better leverage of total budgets over building two networks, one for voice with a PBX and one for data with local and wide area switching. But as you bring the two applications together, operationally you have to manage for very high availability. And that's a good thing because it delivers high availability of data applications including e-business as well as communications. This is very fundamental, because many organizations have separate groups for voice and for data. Clearly they have separate equipment and do not leverage how they're spending their dollars. They buy PBXs and all that equipment, which largely does not provide the price-performance gains that we've seen on the data and computing side because of the open environments. The PBX side is a closed environment, and opening that up is creating tremendous gains in price-performance. That is a cultural change in the voice industry and one that we see the voice users embracing. How widespread is actual deployment of IP telephony?
We have many large-reference customers now who are in live deployment of IP telephony. More than 50% of our largest enterprise customers are either current users or have at least begun to evaluate the technology. I think that's a telling statistic in terms of where we are in the adoption cycle. PBXs have a fairly long lifetime, so you don't see the opportunity to upgrade voice communications very regularly. But, increasingly, at any site where there is a requirement for an upgrade or a new site is being built, those companies are considering -- and in many cases, deploying -- IP telephony. And it is ready for prime time. You mentioned wireless technology, which is also making inroads into the enterprise. Do you see wireless networks as a viable alternative to traditional networks?
The advantage in the enterprise is that you can deploy high-capacity wireless in unlicensed bandwidth (2.4 GHz with 802.11b) and get 11 Mbits. However, that is still shared media. I see enterprise wireless as supplementing the wide area infrastructure for mobility purposes. I don't envisage an enterprise being purely wireless. In terms of how you connect your laptop into corporate applications, at the desktop it will continue to be wired Ethernet; in corporate common areas it will be wireless LAN; and in some public environments, it will be public 2.5 and 3G. Cisco is investing a great deal in developing optical technology. Do you expect optical equipment to move into the corporate enterprise any time in the near future?
In many respects, the enterprise is already very optical. In the average data center, many devices are connected optically. Where we?ll see new and exciting things in particular will be around metropolitan networks taking advantage of dark fiber capabilities to drive very high capacities using high-capacity Ethernet. Another important area is network-attached storage and the networking capabilities to support storage applications. Providing acceptable response time for applications while centralizing information is leading to more network-attached storage. That is going to drive a lot of the requirements for high-capacity networking. Optical continues to be key in the enterprise network, and will see ever-increasing speeds and services deployed over optical infrastructures. But at the end of the day, every enterprise network is a mixture of optical and copper technology. The secret is to combine Ethernet and IP services throughout those networks, whatever the underlying transport -- whether it's copper, optical, wireless, etc. What is the number one issue facing network administrators today?
Two things. I would say, first of all, the number one issue facing network administrators is complexity. But secondly, I think today in this current economic situation, it's how to do more with their available budgets. Budgets are being reconsidered and resized. In both cases, I think the architectural approach that Cisco has taken is the way of solving those issues. If you've got a plan, and you're moving toward one architectural model -- using standards, and taking advantage of the highest price-performance technologies -- you can't go wrong. If you had to pick the hottest topics in the industry today, what would they be?
There are a few. IP telephony is clearly one, optical networking -- especially as it relates to storage -- is clearly another one, wireless local area networks is another. The one we haven't already covered today is content networking. That includes everything from Layer 7 load balancing to servers, caching, content distribution, and content routing. That's key in optimizing application performance and user experience, particularly over wide area networks.

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