Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins: Get ready for the network's next act | Tech News

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Cisco’s annual user event, Cisco Live, is being held in Orlando, Florida, this week. While Orlando is home to DisneyWorld, Universal Studios and other places where fantasies come true, the one thing that isn’t make-believe is the turnaround of Cisco since Chuck Robbins took over as CEO. When the baton was passed to Robbins in August of 2015, Cisco’s stock was trading at about $25/share and had been moving sideways for years. Today, it’s trading at about $45/share and at a 17-year high, and the turnaround is well underway.

Cisco goes back to the network

How did Robbins get Cisco’s mojo’s back in such a short period of time? The answer lies in its roots and a refocus on the network. In fact, when Robbins took over as CEO, I wrote a post outlining some priorities for him as he stepped into the role. My first point was to approach IT through the lens of the network. In the years leading up to the transition to Robbins, I felt Cisco had tried too hard to prove itself as a server and traditional IT vendor instead of staying true to networking.

Since then, Cisco has gone back to what made it great in the first place — being the world’s largest and most important network vendor — and it has driven a tremendous amount of innovation into it, including its recent intent-based networking (IBN) solution.

‘Networks will power the future’

At the 2018 edition of Cisco Live, Robbins’ message to the 26,000-plus attendees was that the network has never been more important and that we sit on the precipice of the networks next act. During his keynote, he made the statement that “Networks will power the future,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Almost all of the enabling technologies of digital transformation, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), mobility, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing, are network-centric. There isn’t a company today that isn’t highly dependent on its network, and in many cases, the network is the business.

The network’s next act

If the network is to become the thing that powers business in the future, it and the people that run it must evolve in the following ways:

  • The end-to-end network must shift to intent based. When Cisco first launched its IBN solution, it focused on the campus network with the new Catalyst 9000 series. Since then, it has brought the benefits of IBN to the WAN, IoT networks and data center. I don’t expect businesses to flick the IBN switch to on tomorrow, but network professionals should start the educational process of what it is and how it works or they risk being left behind.
  • AI and machine learning (ML) come into the network. Networks generate massive amounts of data that can be used to gain new insights that can help businesses accelerate their digital plans. The problem is there is too much data for people to analyze and gain inferences from manually. AI and ML can connect the dots between all these sources of data faster and more efficiently than people. Cisco has made its own investments in these areas with acquisitions such as AppDynamics and Perspica, and it has built products such as Tetration and DNA to help customers consume the information.
  • Security is foundational to the network. Securing a business has become exponentially more difficult as the number of entry points has increased. The network is the one resource that sees all and can be a powerful detection and enforcement mechanism. Cisco has many network security tools that can protect the business, including segmentation, AMP for endpoints, Talos, Umbrella, and its unique encrypted traffic analytics (ETA). Additionally, Cisco has an open framework for third parties to plug into.  
  • The network needs to be programmable. This is one of the biggest fundamental changes the network has ever seen. Gone are the days when application developers and network engineers lived in their own worlds. All of Cisco’s new networking products have exposed APIs that application developers can use to automate and orchestrate configuration changes to improve the performance of apps.

    However, the APIs aren’t only for developers. Network engineers should be using the APIs to manage the network, although this requires raising the level of software fluency in this community. Cisco’s DevNet program is aimed at helping both developers and infrastructure professionals harness the power of a programmable network.

  • Network control needs to extend to public clouds. Hybrid clouds are now the norm, and the use of both public and private clouds have exploded. For network professionals, this means being able to extend security, control, and visibility into public clouds, making the hybrid environment look like a single network. Cisco has been working on this challenge for years and has made a number of acquisitions in this area, such as CliQr and cmpute.io. It also has partnerships with all the major cloud providers, with the one with Google being the most developed. At Cisco Live, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene joined Robbins on stage to support the joint work between the two companies.

Make no mistake, the network is now a strategic business asset that is capable of creating competitive differentiation. After years of trying to be anything but a network vendor, Cisco under Robbins has effectively renewed its vows with the network and is committed to being the innovator it once was. It has rolled out a significant amount of new product in Robbins’, tenure but I have a feeling that the pace of innovation will only accelerate from here.

Note: Cisco is a client of ZK Research. 

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