Channel partners are absorbing a new take on Cisco campus network design in light of the vendor's revised networking blueprint.
Cisco's June 20 unveiling of what company executives refer to interchangeably as an "intuitive network" and "intent-based networking" underscores the company's growing emphasis on software, programmability, security and centralized management. The broad goal is to create self-learning, adaptable networks that can automatically execute responses to security threats and other events. Products that flesh out the company's vision will roll out over the next few months.
For channel partners, Cisco's latest technology evolution offers multiple components to assess and evaluate on behalf of clients. Some partners see promise in Cisco's Digital Network Architecture (DNA) Center management console, while others emphasize the Cisco Software-Defined Access offering for network automation. Partners also have Cisco's Encrypted Traffic Analysis technology, which the company said can find malware lurking in encrypted traffic; a new line of Catalyst switches; and an analytics platform to consider.
And while Cisco's networking gambit offers a lot to digest, it also provides multiple entry points for selling and deploying network offerings.
"There are a couple of different vectors," noted David Chandler, practice director for enterprise network solutions at World Wide Technology Inc. (WWT), a Cisco systems integrator and value-added reseller based in St. Louis. "You don't have to pick one approach to it."
Potential customers, use cases
Chandler said WWT will start taking the intuitive network components to its customers in the late summer, early fall timeframe, with the aim of improving how campus and branch networks operate. The company has already launched a training program to get its field sales, field engineering and professional services personnel up to speed on Cisco's new networking platform.
As for customer uptake, Chandler cited Cisco Software-Defined Access technology as creating opportunities.
"Because of the nature of what [Cisco Software-Defined Access] is doing around segmentation and around security and around policy, it has some immediate use cases for things like [Payment Card Industry compliance] and also [the internet of things]," Chandler said.
Jason Parryvice president of client solutions, Force 3
According to Cisco, Software-Defined Access employs automated policy enforcement and network segmentation to shrink network provisioning time and reduce the effects of security breaches.
Chandler said the internet of things (IoT) is a particularly good fit for Cisco's approach. In an IoT context, Software-Defined Access identifies devices coming into a network and automatically categorizes isolates and analyzes them. "From a security perspective, that is a huge advantage," he said.
For less-specialized customers, the conversation will revolve around automation and the ability to reduce the time it takes to deploy networks, Chandler noted. He cited mobile capabilities of Cisco's networking platform will be an important customer incentive as well.
Cisco cited user mobility as a use case for Software-Defined Access. In addition, the vendor described its Catalyst 9000 Series switches as "mobile-ready" and equipped to host a wireless controller and able to accommodate emerging wireless standards such as 802.11ax.
Centralized management, security
Management changes are also in store for channel partners, in addition to the emerging software-defined elements of the new-look Cisco campus network design. Rob Lopez, networking group executive at Dimension Data, a systems integrator, managed service provider and Cisco partner, said Cisco's networking announcement points to a future in which the vendor will pull together its portfolio, from a management point of view, over a period of time. He said Cisco's acquisitive nature has led to a variety of different tool sets and approaches for managing a wide product range. Cisco DNA Center will help unify the management of Cisco products, he suggested.
A more unified portfolio and architectural approach is "certainly part … of the vision," Lopez said. "It is going to be critical to see how they deliver on that."
In security, Lopez said Cisco's product launch supports the network-as-sensor and network-as-enforcer concepts, which Cisco has previously discussed. "That's the way that all technology companies need to start thinking about securing" networks and devices, he said.
Jason Parry, vice president of client solutions at Force 3, a network security company and IT solutions provider based in Crofton, Md., agreed that Cisco's announcement is on track with the network-as-senor notion.
"There is really no better place to attack the security problem, simply because everything has to cross the networks," he said.
Parry also cited Cisco's use of machine learning to identify malware in network packets as another innovative approach to security.
New technology lineups -- especially expansive ones -- take time for customers to evaluate and adopt. Lopez noted the example of Cisco's Nexus 9000 data center switch and Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) software-defined networking (SDN) approach, which debuted in 2013. He said Dimension Data customers purchased Nexus 9000 switches, which can support ACI deployments, fairly quickly, but clients have only started large-scale ACI projects this year. Lopez said he expects to see a similar pattern with the Catalyst 9000 switches and DNA Center, although he expects the adoption cycle for those technologies to be faster.
That's because the campus setting, where Nexus 9000 switches typically reside, lacks some of the complexities of the data center environment, where IT managers must consider a new technology's effects on compute, storage and applications.
Parry said Cisco's intent-based networking approach essentially takes Cisco's SDN play in the data center and moves it to the campus and the extended network. So, customers previously exposed to data center SDN -- through the ACI fabric -- could make a smoother transition to the newly announced technologies, he noted.
"If they have been exposed to ACI, they will go down this route fairly easily, understanding the methodology and thought process behind it," Parry said.
John Bristol, vice president of architectural engineering at Trace3 Inc., an IT solutions provider in Irvine, Calif., said Cisco will face adoption challenges with its end-to-end strategy. He suggested Cisco may find particular resistance in cybersecurity, where potential customers have invested in a multitude of point products or "very specific best-of-breed" offerings. He said vendors in the security space will be "hard to unseat."
That said, Bristol noted Cisco will be able to convince companies to adopt its approach if it can prove the technology's value through referenceable use cases and the endorsements of major clients. He believes Cisco is headed in the right direction with its strategy, but said its vision depends on "the execution and, ultimately, in the products and services they deliver … to make that happen."
Customers considering Cisco's new networking approach will "prove it out before they jump all in," Parry added.
Channel partners, meanwhile, will also have some exploring to do when it comes to intention-based networking and its potential to reshape Cisco campus network design. Cisco's Nexus switch caused a "drastic shift" in how Force 3 implemented data center networks, he explained.
"Nexus … really allowed us to bring new capabilities and we expect nothing less from this," Parry said of Cisco's networking announcement. "Moving forward, it will have a big impact on the way we think about deploying a customer's campus network."
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