Cisco’s “Intercloud”: the New “Everything?”

Cisco did their expected cloud announcement yesterday, but it wasn’t exactly a complete picture of Cisco’s cloud intentions.  It was at least a better picture of what Cisco is doing than the media has been able to muster, though.  For example, it’s pretty obvious that their investment of a billion dollars in “the cloud” isn’t (as has been reported) a commitment to Cisco’s entering the cloud business or competing with Amazon.  The announcement is the now-common Cisco mix of insight and unbridled hype, and it’s a job to wade through it all.

The foundation concept is the “Intercloud”, I think, which is an ecosystem of partners that Cisco says is essential in supporting the Internet of Everything.  This is almost enough for me to dismiss the whole thing as being PR nonsense, since I think it’s clear that’s what the IofE is.  However, look a bit deeper and you can see some of the insights peeking through.

In my view, it would make no sense for Cisco to pour a lot of money into becoming a cloud provider.  They’d compete with all the people they hope to sell equipment to.  So the strategy is more about building a global Cisco-based cloud ecosystem, which is what their “intercloud” means.  To Cisco, an intercloud is a network of clouds, so it’s essentially a federation of cloud providers and an ecosystem of partners who will offer everything from hardware to professional services.  Cisco’s press release says the following are the initial players:

…leading Australian service provider Telstra; Canadian business communications provider Allstream; European cloud company Canopy, an Atos company; cloud services aggregator, provider and wholesale technology distributor Ingram Micro Inc.; global IT and managed services provider Logicalis Group; global provider of enterprise software platforms for business intelligence, mobile intelligence, and network applications MicroStrategy, Inc.; enterprise data center IT solutions provider OnX Managed Services; information availability services provider SunGard Availability Services; and leading global IT, consulting and outsourcing company Wipro Ltd.

Cisco does plan to provide data centers to the Intercloud, but they’ve not indicated how many and what role they’ll provide.  In particular we don’t know whether Cisco is counting the hosting facilities already committed to WebEx, Meraki and Cisco Cloud Web Security.  To these already-web offerings, Cisco plans to add a bunch of services and capabilities ranging from SAP HAMA to Videoscape.  Go through all of this and you see that CCS is really an umbrella concept that unifies all of Cisco’s various software strategies (in nomenclature, at least).  It also promotes Cisco’s networking vision, and in particular Cisco’s Application-Centric Infrastructure, which Cisco intends to build into an SDN solution.

The insightful part of this is twofold.  First, Cisco’s move finally centralizes the company around a vision that has some legs—the future is going to look like a connected cloud, even down to the enterprise level.  Second, IaaS isn’t enough to give anyone a strong cloud future, so you have to build both a way to enhance operations efficiency to make IaaS most profitable, and a way to augment it to build revenue and volume.  Likely the way to do that is “platform services”, which I believe Oracle demonstrated they understood with comments in their last earnings call.

The problem is that every indulgence has its price, and Cisco indulged itself fully in hyperbole in their CCS announcement.  That raises the bar in terms of tangible proof points, and in this case Cisco has omitted some critical things instead of validating them.

The first problem is that if you’re going to do an Intercloud you need to have a federation story so strong it’s like a tech national anthem.  Cisco doesn’t tell one in their announcement, and I don’t see any indication they have one.  I know that Cisco understands the need for federation because I sat in as a silent partner on a Cisco pitch on it to a Tier One.  Cisco was a fly in the ointment of the only carrier federation architecture designed for the service layer (IPsphere) because it was a Juniper initiative.  Now, given that federation is mandatory in NFV, Cisco might have launched itself into federation supremacy by simply doing and announcing what’s clearly going to be a requirement, but they didn’t.

The second problem is that Cisco Cloud Services is too big.  A 900-pound gorilla can sit anywhere he wants, but a 9,000-pound gorilla sits wherever they happen to be forever because they’re not agile enough to move.  There’s just too much here to grasp, and especially to sell.  The only clear theme of Intercloud is that “inter” part that I’ve already noted Cisco neither develops fully nor defends with a strong solution.

So what this may come down to is intent, meaning the goal of the ecosystem itself.  Cisco is a sales behemoth, and so if it can’t sell CCS in a direct sense, can it make it into a concept so vast that every buyer and seller ends up running into it?  That may be true, and it may have been Cisco’s goal.

There’s not a standards activity on this planet—SDN, NFV, cloud, content, whatever—that has a prayer of keeping up with its own market.  We’ve been trying for the last decade to standardize at a glacial pace when the industry measures time in “Internet years”, and if anything it’s getting worse.  Cisco could create a de facto, proprietary, universe that’s a kind of fifth dimension to the reality of standards and openness but has the advantage of being there.  Operators need to have a cloud strategy; Cisco offers one.  VARs and integrators and software companies need a cloud story they can glom onto, and Cisco has it.  Buyers and sellers need a booth where the two groups can meet and do commerce, and Cisco is presenting one.

All along, with SDN and NFV and the Cloud, Cisco has bet on the idea that the market has grand ideas and pathetic execution skills, and many would argue (with some justification) that Cisco is the same way.  How many times did they announce a five-step program in which they were already in Step 2 and never got beyond Step 3?  But “the market” is unable to unify around anything useful.  Standards groups find agreement in superficial cooperation because anything deeper would be opposed by both groups for political reasons.  The IQ of any group of people, so the saying goes, is equal to the IQ of the dumbest divided by the number of people.  Given that standard, Cisco knows it doesn’t need to be all that smart, and they may have a point.

Leave a Reply