Key Takeaways From Cisco Systems Live 2020

eWEEK NETWORKING ANALYSIS: At its annual user event—held in virtuality for the first time—Cisco provided the right mix of social and technical discussions.

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Cisco Systems held its first all-digital user event, Cisco Live, this week. The online event wisely was rescheduled from two weeks ago, because Cisco leadership did not want the event to distract from the social issues created by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. The interesting twist is that Cisco’s event was forced to go digital because of COVID-19, but that enabled it to move it more easily than a live event.

Typically, my takeaways from an event like Cisco Live are technical in nature like “the cloud has arrived” or “virtualization is now mainstream,” but this year’s event was substantially different because of the social issues facing the planet. Below are my top takeaways from Cisco Live 2020 – digital version.

Takeaway No. 1: Societal Change Is Now Real

Racism, exclusivity and other issues have plagued our country and the world for decades, but nothing changed. It seems we are on the verge of real change, and the initiatives are being led by high-tech companies that include Cisco.

At the event, CEO Chuck Robbins (pictured) announced that the company’s purpose statement was evolving from “Changing the way we work, live, learn and play” to “To power an inclusive future for all.” This requires a systemic change from everyone in every part of our lives. During a Q&A with analysts, SVP and GM of Mass Scale Infrastructure Jonathan Davidson said Cisco documentation would no longer refer to master/slave and blacklist/whitelist, because they have racial undertones. GitHub announced a similar initiative.

I believe that social change is real and I was glad to see Robbins use this time to discuss these issues instead of just talking about Cisco. I also hope that business and IT leaders make social change part of the evaluation process when they choose to a vendor. Let’s reward those who are leading change.

Takeaway No. 2: The Network Matters More Than Ever

It’s fair to say that the network has never had the same level of C-level interest as the cloud or applications. A few years ago, CIO contacts of mine were telling me company executives were all pushing to move to the cloud. Today, very few of those execs are pushing to evolve to SD-WAN or ensure that WiFi6 is deployed across the company. However, they should be.

All of the building blocks of digital transformation–IoT, cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), mobility and other trends–are network centric. The COVID-19-induced push to work from home has accelerated digital trends and further increased the value of the network. In this age of social distancing and customer experience, the network enables us to connect customers to employees to information to applications. The choice of network vendor matters, and “good enough” is no longer good enough.

Takeaway No. 3: Agility Is Mandatory for IT Success

During his keynote, Cisco’s SVP and GM of Networking, Todd Nightingale stated: “I believe this is a new world, and the new IT superpower is agility.” He then discussed how agility is built on a combination of insights and automation.

If there was any doubt as to the importance of agility, consider the impact of COVID-19. Almost overnight, companies had to send their workers home while ensuring that they were as productive as they had been in the office. Organizations that were highly agile saw no drop-off in productivity, with many stating they had seen a boost. Companies that had legacy infrastructure that was rigid and brittle either had to spend a bunch of money to modernize their infrastructure or fall behind the competition.

People have asked me what the “new normal” looks like, and my answer is there is no new normal. IT leaders need to be prepared to have everyone in the office, no one in the office and everything in between. This means IT will be called upon to do the seemingly impossible. All IT pros should heed Nightingale’s words and focus on ensuring agility. The world is becoming more dynamic and more distributed; the question is, are you ready?

Takeaway No. 4: Cisco Is an Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning company

When the acronyms AI and ML get bandied about, names such as Amazon, NVIDIA and Microsoft come to mind. However, Cisco is also an important AI/ML vendor. During a Q&A with analysts, SVP of Emerging Technology and Innovation Liz Centoni correctly pointed out that the analyst community never gives Cisco the credit for being an AI company, and she’s right. In actuality, almost all of Cisco products now deploy AI/ML. Below are some examples:

  • DNA Spaces enables network managers to shorten the time taken to troubleshoot WiFi issues and resolve them. It also uses location analytics to provide insights into the behavior of people and things in business spaces. This becomes critical in an era of social distancing and contact tracing.
  • Webex has a wide range of AI-enabled use cases\, including the Webex assistant that enables workers to issue voice commands to start meetings, schedule calls, invite participants and other tasks. Webex also has a number of AI features coming, including translation, transcription, facial recognition and other things to improve the meeting experience.
  • Meraki Insights is a cloud-based network management tool that gathers data across the entire network, including the WAN, wired LAN and wireless networks. Most management tools do an adequate job of finding problems, but by the time the troubleshooting process starts, the issue has gone away. Meraki Insights uses AI to quickly isolate the source of a problem, often before it becomes a business impacting issue.
  • Secure-X is Cisco’s security portal. It gathers up information from across the network and all of Cisco’s security products. It uses AI to find breaches that would normally go undetected. People can’t analyze the volume of data generated by security systems, but machines can.
  • Intent base networking turns business policies into automated actions. Once the policies are set, the network becomes self-healing and self-driving through AI-based automation. This is different from simple rules-based systems, because those rules need to be manually configured. Intent-based systems constantly adapt to changing conditions.

Takeaway No. 5: Cisco Is Making Its Products Simpler to Deploy and Operate

Historically, Cisco has loaded its products with advanced features but often saw them lightly deployed, because they were too complicated for most organizations to get up and running. TrustSec, Identity Services Engine (ISE) and PfR are a few examples. When Robbins took over from John Chambers as CEO in July 2015, he vowed to make Cisco products easier to use, and he has been true to its word. Many of the product updates this week were around usability.

For example, the newest release of ISE was based around usability and automating guest access. Also, Webex had a number of product updates, and while none of these would fall under the “whiz-bang” category, many were focused on usability and manageability. For example, Webex Control Hub provides IT administrators with the insight required to understand user experience. This data can be used to optimize performance, which makes the product more usable.

Cisco has also been working on cross-domain architectures that bring together products from several of its business units. The company seems to finally understand that customers buy products to achieve specific outcomes, and purchasing isn’t aligned with Cisco BUs.

For example, its work-from-home solution includes a number of products that span security, collaboration and networking with automation capabilities. This isn’t just a simple bundle but integrated solutions that make it easier for the IT admins to deploy and for customers to use. Customers should expect to see much more in what the company is calling “connected experiences” as they build more multi-domain solutions.

With the world no longer traveling, I’ve done a number of virtual events and Cisco Live 2020; while it was not quite the same as a live event, it certainly was a useful ne. Cisco provided a strong mix of social discussions, business-leader thoughts and technical sessions. Given Cisco’s place in the industry, it’s what I would expect.

The world sits on the precipice of massive change, and we all need to change along with it. That includes our skill sets, the way we manage--but also the way we treat each other.

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.