This week, I’m jumping between events. The first one is being held by Cisco, which is launching something called “intent-based networking solutions,” effectively a smart network platform. The company is defining this new class of intelligent network, which can determine the intent of an organization with regard to the network, understand the context of what is being requested of the network, and from this, using machine learning, intuit what needs to be done to best benefit the customer and the organization. I think we are seeing the reinvention of Cisco. The power of this move, assuming it is successful, is in line with IBM’s move to cognitive computing but applied to the network.
I had a chance to chat with some of the customers at the event. From the customer perspective, this is a true game changer and I think Cisco is significantly understating the potential powerful effect of this change.
Why We Need Intelligent Systems
Often, when we talk about intelligent systems, we lock into a specific information task. For instance, IBM Watson initially was largely focused on providing doctors with very rapid, and surprisingly accurate, diagnoses of difficult diseases. Or we talk in terms of how a system can replace a human, as it would with autonomous cars, drones and planes. But we don’t as often talk about it in context of IT tasks. Much like the story of the cobbler’s children, IT tends to get the benefits from IT, ironically, last.
This is problematic because IT has to not only secure this stuff, but administer and optimize it. Pretty much like every other industry, IT is under resourced, particularly when it comes to responding to an ever-increasing number of state-sponsored threats and attacks. But it goes beyond threats. Often, there are real-time traffic problems, spot outages inside and outside the firm, and the ever-changing needs of users that the networks currently have to be over-designed and provisioned to deal with. The promise of a smart network is that it wouldn’t just be more secure, it would be far less costly to build, run and update.
I wonder if this will evolve into an intelligent hyperconverged offering at some point? That’d be interesting, where each of the core components, computing, storage, and networking, was not only individually intelligent but the entire system would collectively be intelligent, as well.
What the System Offers
The Cisco offering breaks down into a number of components, including new switches (9000 family), a software subscription solution (this is a software-defined network solution, after all), encrypted traffic analytics (to identify breaches and spreading malware infection currently hidden in encrypted traffic), and the big component, the Network Data Platform and Assurance. This last is where the intelligence resides. In addition, there is DNA Services, a new portfolio of service offerings allowing much of the benefits of this to be applied to Cisco’s broad offering. And finally, a Developer Center, where developers can find the APIs they need to interface or build on the solution.
Cisco is setting this up as the industry’s first software-defined access. The result ensures a specifically defined experience by automatically adapting to policy changes and utilizing one overarching secure fabric. To net this out, fully installed, this new fabric architecture effectively removes a lot of the mixed technology mess that exists in legacy networks today. That alone substantially contributes to the result being far easier, and cheaper, to implement and manage.
I had a chance to talk to four customers, all large and in trials with the Cisco software. Each said they were fascinated and impressed by certain unique aspects of this solution, showcasing just how different it is. For one company, it was the fact that you went from organizing your network based on physical aspects to social aspects, focusing more on how people interacted than on the geographic placement of the related hardware. Another, a large cruise line, spoke to how it was able to be more deeply connected to ships at sea and far more able to manage what was going on in these small floating cities.
Another spoke to how this moved networking to where the rest of the IT structure was already going, kind of the missing link in digital transformation. He referred to this as a major game changer that was missing in the concept of digital transformation. But perhaps the most powerful was that they all seemed to agree that the killer application part of this was to be able to scan the network and identify malware, even in encrypted streams, and rapidly mitigate the related risks and massively lower the potential damage from a successful breach. If this product just did this, most seemed to indicate it would be worth it.
Wrapping Up: Cisco Has Actually Understated What It Has Created
Often, we have vendors who overstate the technology they are bringing to market, speaking of the equivalent to the promised land, and providing something that is mostly just different than what is out there. Cisco, based on what the customers testified to, is doing the exact opposite. I don’t think it conveyed at all the power of this solution. According to the customers, it is a game changer from the standpoint of management, their ability to focus on their customers and keep them happy, the missing link in terms of digital transformation and, most important, a massive defensive platform against a wide spectrum of malware.
Massively understating a major advancement in and of itself is a major event. Next week is Cisco’s big customer event. I’ll be there, and given the power of this, you likely should be as well. The theme is apparently Super Heroes. Strangely, this actually seems appropriate.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+