Cisco Remains Cagey About Software-Defined Networking Strategy

At a recent Cisco media briefing, executives of the network equipment giant hinted at new software approaches to be revealed at Cisco Live, but remained vague about what Software-Defined Networking technology they are developing.

Cisco Systems' chief technology officer gave a hint as to what new software technology for routers that the company will unveil at its user's conference next month in San Diego, but she and other execs remained tight lipped about exactly how Cisco will deliver Software-Defined Networking to bring greater intelligence to network traffic management.

CTO Padmasree Warrior was one of several high level Cisco executives who recently invited tech publication editors to its headquarters in San Jose, Calif., for a daylong deep dive into their strategic vision for five of the company's key product areas. Warrior gave a partial reveal of a coming Cisco innovation called Cloud Connect, that could deliver what she called the "next generation WAN" via software embedded into network routers.

"I'm very excited about it," she said during her presentation. "[Cloud Connect] actually takes software elements and embeds that in our ISR and ASR platforms which are leading platforms for access routing. These software modules actually enhance the user experience as they access applications from a public cloud."

ISR stands for Integrated Services Router, which is used in enterprise networks, and ASR refers to the Aggregation Services Router, which is deployed in service provider networks. When pressed by a reporter for more detail, Warrior said more would be revealed at Cisco Live, which runs June 10-14 in southern California.

However, in a blog post on Cisco's Website dated April 18, Alexandra Krasne, a global communications manager for new media in Cisco's Worldwide Partner Organization, described Cloud Connect as a new software platform "for enhancing cloud deployments, increasing cloud security and simplifying cloud-based operations. Plus, customers can leverage the software to build applications customized for their own requirements."

SDN is a new area in network management and has a number of definitions. But it is generally understood to be using software to improve the intelligence and capabilities of network routers and switches. The network in a data center or service provider environment would be virtualized so that the network could be better controlled to operate more efficiently.

The Open Network Foundation (ONF) is a group made up of data center operators, network vendors and academia promoting the OpenFlow protocol to create a controller within the network to manage network equipment. While Cisco is a member of the ONF, it is not ready to embrace OpenFlow. It has created what it calls a "spin-in" company of engineers within Cisco, called Insieme, to research a way to deliver SDN. Cisco executives at the editors' conference declined to say more about the status of Insieme beyond what they've already said publicly. But one executive emphasized that SDN is in its early stages.

SDN "is actually like cloud, it touches on a lot of different things," said Lew Tucker, the CTO of Cloud Computing within Cisco. "But the real essence of that is the increasing involvement of software on how a network is configured, managed and even more importantly the information you get out of the network."

The conference looked at five main areas that are the foundations of Cisco's business: Enterprise networking, service provider networking, video and collaboration, data center, virtualization and the cloud, and security.

In the enterprise networking space, Cisco has been facing increasing pressure from rivals, particularly HP, all seeking to take a piece of the market-share leader in the space. Nonetheless, Cisco holds a majority market share in the wireless local area network (WLAN) space, which is just one part of the overall networking market, but the fastest-growing. It grew its market share by 1.1 percentage points in the first quarter of 2012, over the year ago quarter, according to research from Dell'Oro Group.

"Despite the fact that some of our technology peers in the last couple of days have produced some poor results, we're seeing that business grow like 20-plus percent year over year," said Rob Soderbery, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's GM Enterprise Networking Group.

Soderbery's reference to "technology peers" was to HP's announcement May 23 of a 31 percent drop in net income in the quarter ended April 30, compared to the year ago quarter, along with HP's announcement of plans to cut 27,000 jobs, or 8 percent of HP's workforce.