Cisco’s Product Changes: Exiting or Entering?

There’s been a lot of discussion about Cisco’s ceasing development of its Application Control Engine elements for some of its most popular switches and routers.  More, given that the company has also cut investment in WAAS.  Some are taking this as Cisco’s abandonment of the spaces to more agile competitors, but I don’t think so.

Application networking is squarely in the target zone of the evolution of the new virtualization and cloud computing markets, implicated in SDN evolution, and changing from the top down in response to greater software componentization and orchestration efforts.  Further, I’d contend that an awful lot of both load balancing and WAN optimization are rooted in the old discrete-server paradigm, and so is singularly unsuited to the way the spaces are likely to develop.  So I have to wonder whether Cisco isn’t looking at the whole issue of application networks (as it should be) and working out a new approach.

And this isn’t the only place one is needed.  We’ve evolved networking in an era where network elements were physical devices.  Network elements are evolving to being virtual devices, and then to not being devices at all but rather “containers” that map to applications in one direction and to a pool of resources in the other.  It’s inevitable that software development will adapt to the new rules, and in doing so developers will create an application model that is likely to be much  more dynamic.  This dynamism will undermine the value proposition for load-balancing and WAAS, both by having the application do more directly and by introducing the notion of software control (virtual networking, DevOps, SDN) of the network.  Most current load balancing and application networking solutions are either designed to address issues with static resource assignments or use a presumption of static assignments to work.  In the cloud, everything has to be dynamic.

Could Cisco be looking to be the first vendor to actually field a “cloud network” strategy?  Recall that Cisco is known to favor a “fast follower” role in the market, to avoid blazing trails and instead seek to run others down on the trails they’ve cut.  The question is whether, in this particular case, there might not be enough value to induce Cisco to move quickly or whether Cisco perceives another player (like HP or IBM) is likely to take that lead role shortly.

What the heck is a “cloud network”, then?  It seems certain that at the minimum a cloud network is highly virtualized and highly controlled by software.  It seems certain that the network is a more general resource pool, a pool from which all sorts of capabilities are drawn on demand.  That would tend to favor the notion of “hostable network features” that vendors (including Cisco) have been pushing for some time.  Every device has to serve multiple feature missions because nobody could tell what mission that device might have to play at a given moment.  This vision is the antithesis of fixed-mission-and-position devices that make up most load-balancing and WAN optimization product lines.  It’s seemingly in line with Cisco’s ACE vision, the latest casualty, though.  That suggests that perhaps Cisco believes a major change in what “application control” is and what kind of “engine” might be needed to support it is an onrushing industry reality.

Whatever happens and whatever the motivation, we can expect that Juniper is going to have to respond to this.  Juniper is balancing between trying to be a real enterprise and data center network player (with things like QFabric) and being a security player trying to carefully extend its penetration.  Because they’re a high-inertia hardware-driven company, they can’t afford to let a competitor set the market tone and gain an advantage—it could take four years to re-siliconize to meet the threat.  So Juniper more than anyone needs a cloud architecture, something that lines up hardware to meet the virtual-network needs of the cloud and then dresses the tree with ornaments that provide integrated security, application awareness, etc.  Which is just what Cisco MIGHT be doing.

This adds up to what might be a very interesting fall for enterprise networking, and even some profound changes in how we conceptualize applications, virtual resources, and the cloud.


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