Catchy name, but is it relevant?

Cisco Systems is among the dominant internet brands worldwide, but competing vendors would have you believe that the only way to stand apart from the crowd is to avoid the once-coveted "Cisco-Powered Network" designation.

Often copied by competing networking gear manufacturers, the 4-year-old program provides free consulting and marketing help to carriers that purchase more than $5 million in gear each year. But Ciscos competitors circulate incredible tales of the selling tactics that surround the Cisco-Powered program.

For example, a maker of equipment that was recently deployed by TelstraSaturn, a New Zealand competitive carrier, claims that Cisco CEO John Chambers met personally with TelstraSaturn CEO Jack Matthews after the carrier decided to dump Ciscos routers. Chambers is purported to have guaranteed $100 million in incremental revenue if the Cisco gear stayed put.

"This is simply not true, because no such meeting ever took place," says Matthews, who was reached by phone in New Zealand. Matthews confirms that his network is Cisco-free, but says that TelstraSaturn will likely work with the manufacturer in the future.

But in its startup phase, TelstraSaturn avoided Cisco for both technological and marketing reasons.

"In the market that has no regulation, the only way to win is to have a clear differentiation," Matthews says.

TelstraSaturn — a joint venture between Australias national telephone company Telstra and Australian cable and satellite television company Austar United Communications — is seeking to uproot incumbent Telecom New Zealand by becoming the first New Zealand carrier to sell telephone, Internet and cable TV service over one wire. The battle is fierce, Matthews says, and Telecom New Zealand is striking blows by setting wholesale prices higher than its own retail prices on network ser-vices, shutting TelstraSaturn and others out of some markets and services.

This is where technical differentiation is important, Matthews says. TelstraSaturn circled the island with its own undersea fiber, put its own wire into the streets of main cities and canvassed the market with satellite dishes — and did it cost-effectively with new core, edge and customer premises gear that would support various services to help pay for the undertaking faster.

Tony Baird, TelstraSaturns network technology director, says that the network uses Juniper Networks equipment in the core and Unisphere and Extreme Networks gear on the edge, with the goal of simplifying architecture and management. This equipment was picked based on the price-to-performance analysis in their respective subcategories, such as core routing and edge service creation. Ericsson integrated the entire network. Baird says that Cisco gear would work best as a part of an enterprise local area network, a market TelstraSaturn didnt yet reach.

As for the marketing "oomph!" promised by becoming a Cisco-Powered Network, Matthews says that Cisco is a victim of its own success; the designation doesnt carry much cachet with enterprise customers.

"It has been proven that I wont pay more for Internet Protocol [IP] if its delivered via a network that is more Cisco than Lucent," says James Cashiola, CEO of Simplified Development, a maker of software that creates an intelligence layer on top of networking gear that allows cost-effective network management and service creation. Cashiola points out that Cisco-Powered networks were just as prone to the bankruptcies that swept the telecommunications sector as networks without such designations.

Simplified customer NetworkIP, a wholesale provider of prepaid voice and data services to companies such as Ultimate Communications, claims to generate $3 million in revenue per employee because of the efficiencies derived from Simplifieds product.

Some competing vendors portray TelstraSaturns approach — creating a multivendor carrier network that steers clear of brands such as Cisco, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks — as the beginning of a backlash against single-vendor networking. Besides marketing, critics say, the only reason to deploy lines of equipment made by a single vendor is customer support and interoperability. Those two issues could be addressed by more network management and network administration features migrating to the software layer, with network gear dumbed-down to cover basic functions.

Such network evolution belittles the importance of the brand of equipment used inside the network, and elevates the management softwares importance. In fact, critics say, most networking brands failed in their efforts to create a direct association between end-user services and the gear used to deliver them.

Dozens of carriers that have invested time and money into becoming Cisco-Powered disagree.

"As we move into multiple-vendor environments, we need a provisioning tool that can provision across multiple vendors," says Randy Ivey, executive director of IP engineering and operations at Teleglobe, in reference to Teleglobes decision to deploy Orchestream software to manage its new Multiprotocol Label Switching-based virtual private networking service. The service is in part supported by Cisco gear, instead of using Cisco gear end-to-end for the VPNs.

Its unclear whether individual branding and technology-driven decisions by carriers to avoid end-to-end, single-vendor solutions are a sign of a growing division between transport and intelligence functions — such as services provisioning and network management — or merely marketing ploys.

If the evolution of networks is forcing operators to switch to more efficient technologies to manage their pipes with software solutions other than what individual equipment manufacturers offer, then operators relationships with hardware vendors such as Cisco are about to change.

Two options are a relationship focused on promoting improved hardware performance — a venerable place in the computer industry that is occupied by Intel — or a relationship aimed at being the platform to support services on networking hardware — a place occupied by Microsoft.