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The pace of change in IT over the last decade has increased, and as Cisco pointed out at this year’s Cisco Live event in Las Vegas, IT departments risk being left behind if they can’t keep up with business demands.
Cisco, of course, presented this as an opportunity, a chance for IT departments to lead the changes that can increase productivity and drive revenue growth. According to the company‘s CEO Chuck Robbins, IT has moved from the basement to the boardroom, and is now a strategic part of every company’s business.
The challenge for CIOs is to make sure they are implementing technologies that can drive genuine change for their business.
“Whatever the hype of IoT is, it means nothing if it’s not solving what your business needs solving,” Sandy Hogan, VP of digital transformation at Cisco, told the Cisco Live audience. “About a year ago most customer conversations were about independent technology decisions – bringing wireless to stores, for example.
“Today, every single customer wants to understand how to use technologies to transform their business. Not just small, progressive steps. The opportunity for CIOs, who are now agents of change, is to lead those discussions. We all see a reality in front of us where the business is moving whether we are part of that process or not.”
At the centre of this change, according to Cisco, is the network. It is, after all, what underpins an organisation’s processes. As most of the rest of the business becomes more digital, so too should the network, so it can be flexible and support the needs of the business.
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Jeff Reed, senior vice-president of Cisco’s enterprise infrastructure and solutions group (EISG), said that process is a journey to get the network from where it’s been to where it needs to be to drive that digitisation.
“It cuts across people, training, processes, services and more. The network has never been more important,” he said.
“There are opportunities to add value to the line of business. But at the same time, we’ve seen vast amounts of capabilities added where we can now do things at the network level that we’ve never done before, but which are critical to enabling this architectural shift.”
This has added complexity to many networks, which can lead to errors and security problems, Reed said. Citing Cisco research, he said that 95% of network changes are made manually, and 70% of network errors are due to human error – a lack of automation.
“These networks are big, complex – they’ve been around for years,” he added. “Most of the network operating expense goes on monitoring and troubleshooting. These are things we want to change. The heart of it – Cisco DNA – is a set of core fundamental architectural changes, such as hardware to software-driven, manual to automated.”
The SDN conundrum
Yet conspicuous by its absence at the conference was any real mention of software-defined networking (SDN), one of the industry’s most disruptive shifts. Cisco has said on many previous occasions that it considers SDN an opportunity rather than a threat, and much of its messaging here has been around the role that software will play in the network of the future.
In fact, Reed spoke about “decoupling the network functions from the hardware”, which sounds very much like SDN. Talks around automation, single panes of glass for network management and security, and data analytics reveal Cisco’s dedication to the software side of things.
That’s not to say Cisco is going all-in on software. Robbins reiterated the company’s position on networking hardware: while “nobody wakes up and thinks, I can’t wait to buy a router today!” there is still an important role for hardware in next-generation networks.
“There is a massive, global internet that is getting bigger. It will have more traffic, more connections, more video, more content, and I don’t think you’re going to replace all that high-powered performance with software,” he said.
“So it’s a balance. We need to solve problems with software when it’s appropriate, such as we’ve done with security, where 47% of our security portfolio is delivered as software, or as a service.”
That mention of security, delivered at the conference’s opening keynote speech, was the start of a heavy emphasis on keeping customers secure, bridging what Cisco calls the “security effectiveness gap”.
The problem that CIOs are facing is that as users and applications head to the cloud, the IT function experiences a loss of control.
Traditionally, the way you dealt with that was to put another box onto the network. New threats equalled a new security product. Scott Harrell, vice-president of product management, security business group, described this as a “fundamental flaw” in the way enterprises and indeed the industry approach security.
Scott Harrell, Cisco VP
“As you add incremental devices, customers start to get diminishing returns. A new service is added, but the customer doesn’t realise the full capabilities,” he said.
“As you add more capabilities, the effectiveness flatlines. The complexity of threats and security is rising. You can keep adding things to deal with new problems but you’re not going to get any incremental security protection, because the complexity is going to outweigh the benefits. That’s the security effectiveness gap.”
As part of its efforts to bridge that gap, Cisco released a number of security products at Cisco Live. A recurring product theme was that of automation, removing as much manual intervention from security as possible.
This Cisco Live marked the end of Robbins’ first year as Cisco CEO. The message was clear: technology is changing, and networks have to keep up to satisfy the growing and changing needs of the business. Cisco’s vision for the software-driven network of the future is one that sits at the heart of the organisation.