Cisco Systems Inc. is making its most decisive move to date in its effort to grow beyond its roots as a hardware maker as it fleshes out its Application-Oriented Networking initiative aimed at moving into the upper reaches of the protocol stack.
The AON effort marks Ciscos first bid to peer into and act on the payload of IP packets rather than just forward and transport them. But users and industry observers say Cisco may have difficulty driving IT and middleware players toward preprocessing applications in the network fabric. Still, Cisco officials hope AON will be their next $1 billion business opportunity.
"AON will change how applications are designed and positioned," said John Chambers, CEO of the San Jose, Calif., company. "It has huge implications for the industry."
The AON technology reads application-to-application messages and allows users to apply policy rules to the traffic. It is implemented in blades for the Catalyst 6500 and Integrated Services Routers for branch offices.
The blades initially provide hardware-based acceleration of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) as well as XML parsing, although additional hardware functions for matching senders and receivers will be added over time. Working with a pair of software tools, users define policy rules and deploy them to the blades.
As applications proliferate in large organizations and the adoption of loosely coupled Web application services takes off, communication is growing exponentially, said Stephen Cho, senior director for AON product management at Cisco. "It isnt scalable to come back to a couple of servers in the data center. The system enabling the communication has to be as pervasive as the applications themselves," Cho said.
But Cisco is swimming against the tide of data center computing consolidation with its implementation of AON in remote branch office Integrated Services Routers and Catalyst distribution switches, said Dave Passmore, an analyst for Burton Group, in Sterling, Va.
"The trend has been to minimize people and compute costs by centralizing application functionality to the data center. This is the complete opposite of what Cisco is suggesting," Passmore said.
Although Cisco is collaborating with IBMs WebSphere group, SAP AG and messaging middleware purveyor TIBCO Software Inc., among others, it is likely going to step on the toes of key players. Notably missing from the lineup of partners in the AON initiative are Microsoft Corp. and BEA Systems Inc.
"I do believe this is taking on a lot of the middleware vendors. You see Microsoft trying to move down the [protocol] stack, too," said beta user Bob Coleman, president and chief operating officer of ManTech International Corp., in Fairfax, Va.
"The proof is in the partnering," countered Charles Giancarlo, Ciscos chief technology officer, referring to the list of 13 vendors that have pledged their support of AON.
There are other potential problems on the horizon. By decoupling some functions from servers, AON could introduce latency into sensitive workflows within complex transactions, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc., a Washington-based consulting company.
In moving into such uncharted territory, Cisco will have to learn to sell to and support different players within an IT organization.
"We recognize this requires a different skill set. Our services organization brought in world-class talent from the middleware space," said Cho.