How Cisco Systems Has Evolved into a True IT Provider

TREND ANALYSIS: The 2019 edition of Cisco Live underscored that the transformation of the company is indeed complete.

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Cisco Live 2019 was held June 9-13 in San Diego, and I was fortunate enough to attend the event. I’ve been attending Cisco Live (formerly known as Networkers) for more than 20 years now and have seen the show grow from a small niche technical conference to one of the largest IT shows in the industry. I believe the growth of Cisco Live has contributed to the demise of former powerhouse network conferences such as Interop, because it has become the de facto standard place to go to learn about networking and everything tangentially related to it.

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The 2019 edition will stand out in my mind as it appears to have been a watershed event of some sorts. This is because the transformation of Cisco Systems from fundamentally a hardware maker to a software company appears complete, and we can now see what its next act is.

Here are my top takeaways from Cisco Live 2019:

IT Has Come to the Network

For decades Cisco has been on the outside looking in when it came to IT relevance. Sure the company was the de facto standard for networking, but most CIOs considered the application, compute and storage systems to be the heart of IT. Over the years, Cisco made some inroads into the server market but could never establish itself as a true IT vendor. Today, businesses are planning their digital transformation strategies around technologies such as the cloud, internet of things and mobility, shifting the center of gravity for IT from the compute stack to the network.

Cisco isn’t just a network leader, it’s now a dominant IT vendor, because the focus of IT has shifted to the network.

Cisco is Now a Software Vendor

Software is something Cisco has talked about for over a decade, but it was far more talk than action. The existing network products may have run software, but the value was in the hardware. While hardware is still a differentiator for Cisco, it’s delivering added innovation through software, much of which is cloud based.

Cisco has also matured its enterprise licensing agreements (ELA) and made them buyer friendly. Lastly, all of its products now have exposed APIs enabling customers to build apps and tools on top of the Cisco infrastructure. All of the developer-focused activities roll into Cisco’s DevNet group that ensures consistency from product to product. Historically, any kind of API efforts were done within the business units leading to a messy and inconsistent developer experience. Cisco isn’t just talking the software talk--it’s walking it now.

Engineers are Being Provided the Necessary Tools to Re-skill

Most IT leaders I talk to about digital transformation highlight the importance of infrastructure modernization. This is certainly important, but if a business is going to modernize its technology stack, then it stands to reason that the engineer skill set also needs to be modernized.

The challenge for many network professionals is how to get started. My research has shown that about 75% of network engineers have never made an API call, and I’m sure there’s an intimidation factor in trying.

Luckily, Cisco has plenty of ways for a network professional to get started. The previously mentioned DevNet group has a number of self-paced learning labs that can walk someone through making API calls, writing scripts and other software things. Cisco also has a number of regional DevNet events where engineers can meet with their peers and learn from them.

Lastly, at the Cisco Live events, in the DevNet Zone, Cisco offers a Start It Now program, which is essentially a kick-start program. I am interviewed in this video by Cisco’s Sylvia Spiva in front of the Start It Now area, where I discuss the importance of making reskilling a priority.

For those who already have gone through the process of improving their software skills, they can take one of the new developer-focused DevNet certifications Cisco announced at Cisco Live. These are not replacing the existing certifications but rather complimenting them. I know the certifications, such as CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional) and CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert), are of great interest to engineers so for those looking for more information on the DevNet certifications, details can be found here.

If you’re looking for further validation of what I’m saying, at Cisco Live I ran into Terry Slattery, who was the first ever CCIE (other than the person who created the test), and he has gone through the process of becoming a software power user. If anyone has the right to be stuck in the past, it’s the man that kicked off the CCIE era, but even he has made it a priority, and so should you.

Collaboration is Back and Stronger Than Ever

Cisco has a long history in collaboration but went through some lean years as innovation in many of the products stagnated. During the past few years, almost everything in Cisco collaboration has changed. Webex has a new front end, is video first and is much easier to use. There are new endpoints, including the nifty Webex artificial intelligence-driven boards that improve in room meetings. Cisco also has focused on delivering better integration across its products.

AI is Everywhere

Cisco is using AI to make its products smarter, easier to use and more secure. At Cisco Live, the company announced a number of new AI-driven capabilities to the network that I wrote about in this post. This is just one product, however,and AI is being used in security, wireless, SD-WAN, collaboration, IoT and everywhere else Cisco has products. Customers of Cisco shouldn’t wait too long to deploy the AI capabilities, because it will remove much of the manual overhead required for day-to-day operations, enabling engineers to focus on driving innovation.

Over the years, there has been a tremendous amount of speculation that white boxes, commoditization, the cloud, Huawei and other forces were going to kill Cisco. Obviously, none of those predictions came true as Cisco has re-emerged bigger and stronger than it was before.

The only difference is that it’s driving innovation faster than ever, and that’s good for its massive customer base.

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.