The day software ate Cisco

The day software ate Cisco

Summary: Cisco's track record with software tells us the company will not survive the shift to software-defined networking


It hasn't happened yet. It's another of my predictions. But it suddenly struck me this week, as I read about the latest developments in cloud networking. Five or so years from now, the day will come when Cisco will have shrunken almost to nothing, eaten by software.

Marc Andreessen's phrase, "software is eating the world," coined for a Wall Street Journal article last August, succinctly captures the single most important trend in our world today — not only in computing but in the entire field of business. It's the driving force behind the rise of what I call frictionless enterprise — the new way of working and doing business enabled by software that leverages the connectivity of the Web plugged into the power of today's intelligent electronic devices.

At the beginning of the week, I read Cade Metz' Wired article about Nicira, under the provocative title, Mavericks Invent Future Internet Where Cisco Is Meaningless. It was an eye-opening introduction to the emergence of the new field known as software-defined networking (SDN): "a new breed of computer network that exists only as software, a network you can control independently of the physical switches and routers running beneath it ... a world where networks can be programmed like computers."

I wondered why the industry has decided to call this SDN when a much more resonant term would have been networking-as-code. It's exactly analagous to the infrastructure-as-code movement in the world of servers, powered by software like Chef and Puppet, which turns entire server farms into software-defined metadata that can be reconfigured at will. The cloud giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook have long since implemented this approach in their data centers, allowing them to run on custom specified, cost-efficient server hardware that they don't have to pay brand-name premiums to buy. Knowing that, I'm persuaded that the Wired article is spot on when it implies they're now doing exactly the same with networking, which is why Cisco faces a big challenge:

"Many of the world's largest web companies, including Google, are already buying cut-rate networking gear directly from manufacturers in Taiwan and China, making an end-run around the Ciscos and the Junipers. With Nicira providing a virtual networking platform that works with any gear from any vendors, [Nicira's CTO] Casado says, this trend will only continue. The Ciscos and Junipers, he says, will become less and less important."

Of course Cisco is aware of these developments and later in the week news emerged of its $100 million investment in SDN startup Insieme, along with an option to buy the company outright for $750 million. Om Malik gave his verdict on the leaked memo that was the source of this news under the excoriating headline, Cisco memo: We can't build anything: "when I read this memo, I see a company making a tactical admission that it has become so big, so bureaucratic and so broken that it cannot count on internal teams to build any ground breaking products."

If anything, my take is even more pessimistic than Malik's. Cisco's proven track record is that it simply can't do software. Over the years, I've become increasingly frustrated as I've watched the company flounder with a series of massive failed initatives. There was its long-forgotten venture into application-oriented networking back in 2005. Most disappointing of all was its failure to make anything much of its acquisition of WebEx.

The truth is, Cisco is a hardware engineering company and the only thing it knows how to do well is to define a need, capture it in embedded logic and then profit from dominating a locked-in market. That may still work in the client device market (as Apple continues to demonstrate) but the days are vanishing fast when you can get away with it at an infrastructure level. Software is eating that world and Cisco is on the menu. One day, we'll look round, and it will be gone.

Topics: Networking, CXO, Cisco, Software, IT Employment

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • We will see

    Quite daring comments. Not sure of your background and therefore your ability to make that call. So I will refrain from completely dismissing your opinions and will certainly consider them. And I don't disagree that Cisco should be worried but for many reasons, not just SDN.

    Nevertheless, the idea that SDN spells the end of hardware networking technology seems a little far stretched. The beauty of a lot of networking technology is its simplicity, speed, and reliability. The problem with anything built on servers or clients is that they are the opposite - complex, slower, and less reliable. The more layers you have to sit upon and rely upon, the higher the risk of failure. I'm not sure anyone wants networks to have that sort of weakness.

    I can see things going the way you describe, but it will only become inevitable if people who don't understand the implications are in charge. I genuinely hope that there are those out there who do understand and that they are in a position to prevent large scale reliance on SDN type infrastructure, at least for anything / any business that matters.
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    • We Will See

      Having been in the netowrking world for quite some time, I think you over-simplified the networking component as "networking technology is its simplicity, speed, and reliability." Granted, compared to server farms and data warehousing, networkign can 'appear' simple. But the nuts and bolts that actually hold it together are fairly complex. MPLS, for instance is a great transport scheme, once it is configured correctly and the Layer 2 components are all aware.

      I don't see software eating Cisco within 5 years, but I do think Cisco (and Juniper) will change their strategy pertaining to how they address the underlying routing and security components of networks.
  • A fresh new topic

    Thanks for your article for it is not every day that I hear about a completely new concept. At least for me, of course.
    As I'm on the software side of life, even if I'm a hardware side long ago graduate, I look forward to that SDN future for it will enable all my communicating distributed objects to do even more. Perhaps slower, but for some years now speed has not been a primary concern for software development has been lagging hardware.
    Much more powerfull things can be implemented using a kind of SDN. Congratulations for your excellent and daring article!
    Francisco Reis
  • Another thing.....

    One thing I've learned in a half-century of living and working is that the more important a process or tool is, the more neccessary redundency is. From the spare tire in your car, the life-boats on a ship, to using a combo of wired/wireless communications, data or otherwise. After all, even cash registers need to run in electric, cable or wireless outages. Nothing is 100% foolproof, but we got to cover what we can.
    If Cisco can adapt (and sell) systems incorperating both concepts in a simple, reliable, and easy for IT guys, they will survive. Their network reputation and large Enterprise customer base will keep them running.
    Old Dog V
  • What?

    You're confusing software-as-a-service with software-based routing, and even there, your assertions are questionable at best. Failure to make anything much of WebEx? 320,000+ meetings a day isn't enough for you?

    "cannot count on internal teams to build any ground breaking products?" Have you never heard of Telepresence?

    And you're about a decade and a half late to notice Cisco's acquisition strategy to quickly bring new products to market.

    Please do mark your calendar, though, for April 22, 2017. If Cisco's completely gone on that date, I'll eat crow. Somehow I bet that when they aren't, you won't though.
  • Cisco is but one exampleof a recurring theme...

    Great post Phil, as always. While I'd agree for sure that companies like Nicira provide significant threat for companies like Cisco. the key question here is one of innovation and fear.

    Cisco, to continue your example, has the resources and the smarts to have created SDN. The concern of course rests with an organization that disrupts its own high-value business by introducing a lower revenue alternative. Traditional vendors go all out to delay this disruption. The winning companies are those who can bring to market disruptive technology in an appropriate time frame - I'd not suggest that it is only a new breed of vendors who are able to do this - often they lack the ecosystem, the resource and the experience to actually get something to market.

    While the challenge you describe certainly exists, it's perhaps a little rash to prognosticate the demise of a company like Cisco. With enough courage, a readiness to disrupt themselves (and an awareness that if they don't disrupt themselves, no one else will), they're eminently capable of surviving this brave new world.

    A phrase springs to mind that a Cloud CEO I know often uses, "it's not the big that eat the small, it's the fast that eat the slow". Interesting times....
  • "software defined networking?"

    "Cisco???s track record with software tells us the company will not survive the shift to software-defined networking"

    "software defined networking?"

    A meaningless term. You'll always need a hardware antenna to create radio waves, and you'll always need electronics to push electrons over wires.

    Sure, you can push more or less parts of the OSI stack into software, but you'll always need some base level of hardware to make it work. And as long as that's the case, I'm sure Cisco will likely stay in business.
  • Cisco's strength is...

    Acquisitions. Enough said.
  • Software Leads to Bloatware

    In the goal of trying to push packets of information as quickly and efficiently as possible, a lean and mean embedded firmware combined with reliable hardware is what enterprises are looking for when they are looking at 4-9's up time.

    I'm glad to see that there are alternatives and innovation towards an alternative networking solution but I hope that it doesn't lead to having to upgrade your hardware to keep up with the software updates that WILL follow.

    I'm pretty sure that Cisco as well as HP and Juniper will be around for awhile.
  • "Spin-IN" Company...

    In essence Cisco has created it's own SDN in house in the company that they invested a $100 million into, with an option to purchase at $750.

    This is the WHOLE STORY. Cisco has been doing this for about 5 years. They have funded 'star employee's' who then go off an create start-ups in a smaller fast paced environment. It has become a thorny issue within Cisco, because Cisco has competing projects on its campus, but those employees working on them do not get to partake in a new found wealth of a potential acquisition by Cisco itself.

    This either the most brilliant or dumbest move ever made by the executives of a company.

    You have tens of thousands of engineers who get a regular salary and then a few dozens who were funded to leave and start up their own company, one that might be bought by Cisco. There are probably a lot of pissed off engineers on Cisco's campus.

    That buy out price of $700 million sounds like a locked in price. It is extremely low if this Cisco funded start-up actually came up with a ground breaking product, "game changer". Which gives this move another brilliant stroke of management genius, capping the final buy out.

    This could all back fire. The employees back at Cisco might flee, just stop doing any really great work, (no motivation), and the start up being capped, those employees might only work so hard too. Being in a start-up you think IPO, you think billion dollar valuations, you don't think caps.
  • Way off base

    For the last five to ten years, Cisco is not even the best for your buck router, but they still sell more routers than anyone else. And they will continue to. The famous IT line still applies. "You don't get fired for buying Cisco".
  • If Cisco are an agile company (which I doubt)

    then they should be able to SUPPLY software defined networking systems.
    Google may be able to make their own, but that is beyond the capabilities of most companies or the public sector.
  • If we can have all the basics set in hardware, then . . .

    the basics can not be changed by malware.

    The layers over it can still be messed with, but just imagine if a lot of what is now controlled by hardware, get infected all the way to fubar.

    That will take a lot to get out off.
  • Software defined routing?


    Cisco has always prided themselves on their IOS routing software. It is software, that does routing, always.

    So how come software will displace Cisco?