Cisco: Innovators don't wait for standards

Cisco's Nick Watson discusses 802.11n, the battle with Microsoft in unified communications, and security issues with Unified Communications Manager
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

Faced with a dramatic downturn in business from the US banking sector, Cisco is having to invent new ways of driving revenue from its business customers. Nick Watson, as vice president for Cisco's enterprise business for the UK and Ireland, is charged with heading those efforts in Britain.

At the Cisco Networkers event in January, ZDNet.co.uk asked Watson whether the US slowdown has yet hit Britain's technology spending and questioned him on the latest raft of Cisco technologies, including a pre-standard wireless access point, TelePresence videoconferencing and Unified Communications Manager, its newest call handling software which was recently compromised by a severe vulnerability.

Q: Cisco's chief executive, John Chambers, warned in November that Cisco's US business had suffered due to orders from the financial sector showing "dramatic decreases". Have you seen a downturn like that in the UK?
A: It's curious, isn't it? The credit crunch is there for all to see. I've seen no change at all to date in what [the financial sector is] investing in. Most of the banks' business is in data centres. If they run out of capacity, they run out of capacity. They invest because they have to. That's also true of unified communications. I can't possibly tell you what they will do. What they are doing is: they are continuing to invest.

So is there a downturn?
I can't comment on that. [Cisco was due to release an earnings statement on 6 February, affecting what company employees could say in the meantime].

One of Cisco's key battlegrounds in the enterprise space is unified communications. Both Cisco and Microsoft have ploughed considerable investments into this area, coming out with two different approaches. How will you compete successfully against Microsoft?
We are not necessarily competing. We'll build unified communications that provide a completely open environment for applications on the network. We will provide a unified communications platform on the network that will allow you to use any platform, including Microsoft's. Intelligence should be in the network or the data centre.

Cisco hasn't traditionally been the most open of vendors.
I don't know on what basis. We'll always conform to the standards.

So why exactly should businesses buy unified communications from Cisco, rather than Microsoft?
There's no need for that area [of discussion]. There's nothing [competing with Microsoft] to choose from today. If customers are buying today, they can go with what we're providing, which is to use anybody's application.

I notice that the entire wireless network here is based on 802.11n, the latest wireless spec, which has yet to be standardised. In September you released an access point based on that spec, which is now providing the connectivity here. How do you see the level of demand for 802.11n equipment?
802.11n is generally widely accepted. It's on a journey. We'll be out there with a product as soon as the standard is out there. Sometimes you have to get out before a standard and fit in with it later. That's a crystal-ball gazing exercise. I want to be out there with the technology.

Some businesses are concerned about buying 802.11n equipment because it is not standardised. Releasing pre-standard equipment might cause interoperability problems later. What do you think of those concerns?
If you want to be an innovator, you can't wait for the standard to be there. We will always conform to the standard when it's there. I hope that our engineers are as close to the standard as possible. If we aren't, we'll adapt quickly. You have to innovate ahead of the standards.

I noticed your warnings in the event brochure that customers should be careful not to buy counterfeit Cisco equipment. You also have an exhibition stand to educate customers on the subject. How important is this anti-counterfeiting initiative, Cisco Brand Protection?
We are in good shape because of our channel programmes. We are clear on where people should buy from. If you buy from those organisations, [it's] fine. The risk is where people deviate from that guidance. We had a case where there were counterfeit chips [in a switch/router] — the network failed.

If you look at Microsoft, the world's biggest technology company, they have a huge, and often successful, operation addressing counterfeit operations. How does Cisco tackle the problem, if indeed you think there is a problem?
We have ways of knowing whether [equipment] is ours. We have not needed to do much in that area.

What would you do if one of your customers told you they have mistakenly bought counterfeit equipment?
We have got to get the customer to the point where everything works. We certainly would not ignore them. We would get to the root cause of it. That's what Brand Protection is about.

Cisco is keen to promote its videoconferencing technology, TelePresence. You've filled out the large demo suite to show it to people. How important is TelePresence?
It's transformed my business. People are excited about it and are deploying it.

Who exactly is deploying it?
HSBC. They have a link from London to Hong Kong. There are a number of organisations in the US. [Beyond that] there are something like 190 systems out there deployed, or about to be deployed. From a standing start [it was launched in October 2006], that's very good.

Cisco warned in January that its key IP telephony software, Unified Communications Manager [formerly CallManager] had a vulnerability, which security researchers rated as 10/10 for severity. What are you doing to secure Unified Communications Manager?
We put in an enormous amount of work [into addressing security]. I'm confident that, having seen [our engineers] talk, we're in safe hands.

Are you happy Unified Communications Manager is secure?
That's a key point you've raised. It's been tested as secure. Testing was exhaustive. Research has hammered other offerings.

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