Barbarians at Cisco's Gate

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When you're a company like Cisco Systems, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with market dominance. You have enormous influence over the direction of technological development, plus the luxury of knowing your customers rely on you or your close partners to provide a working, integrated data environment.

The flip side, of course, is that there is always someone else vying to be king of the mountain, and in Cisco's case we're not talking about IT neophytes.

Topping the list, of course, is HP, which recently rolled out some big guns in the form of the new FlexNetwork architecture. As described by HP, the platform is intended to unify virtually all the enterprise's network requirements into a single entity, eliminating the need to hand off protocols and negotiate various network topologies as information makes its way from the data center to the desktop and out to remote locations. The company recently augmented the platform with a new 10 GbE rack switch that doubles scalability and provides an 80 percent boost in throughput. There's also a new set of reference architectures for the FlexCampus platform aimed at reducing the number of layers in modern enterprise networks and, consequently, drawing down hardware requirements.

Cisco and HP have been rivals since the latter's purchase of 3Com in 2010. However, the arrival of a major new network player in North America could complicate matters even more. Chinese powerhouse Huawei Technologies is currently setting up sales channels throughout the U.S. for its networking, branch access, IP and other product lines. That will bring a competitor with about $29 billion in firepower at a time when network infrastructure is undergoing dramatic changes and could be ripe for some new thinking.

At the same time, smaller firms are reacting quickly to the changing paradigm. Juniper, for example, is aggressively targeting the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) market with new Ethernet and wireless LAN technologies designed to accommodate iOS and Android devices. A key component is the new Junos Pulse Mobile Security Suite, which centralizes access and security functions for mobile devices looking to tap into the enterprise network.

To be sure, Cisco isn't exactly sitting on its laurels. The company is concentrating on greater backend infrastructure to accommodate the rise of video communications, and is forging deeper ties with Microsoft to provide a robust environment for Hyper-V environments as users get ready for the transition to Windows 8. The company intends to build Hyper-V and VMware environments around the Nexus 1000V virtual switch and the Virtual Machine Fabric Extender, which are intended to extend centralized policy and control functions to multiple end points.

Due to its scope and complexity, enterprise networking will likely pose some of the most significant challenges as enterprises continue to embed virtualization and the cloud into their workaday infrastructures. Having one dominant supplier surrounded by a field of wannabes does have its advantages in periods of stability, when the major shifts in direction are largely complete and the development path is clear for a while.

In times of change, however, it's questionable whether such an arrangement is desirable, or even possible for very long.