After years of fighting to keep its equipment tightly controlled, Cisco Systems is slowly opening its network to outsiders, one router at a time.
At this year's Cisco Partner Summit, the company announced that third-party developers could create and resell applications to run on the Integrated Service Router (ISR) line, which runs a hardened version of Linux and is generally deployed at branch offices.
"With the opening of the ISR, we are changing the playing field again by allowing it to host applications," said Inbar Lasser-Raab, senior director of network systems for Cisco. "There are a lot of vertical applications, custom applications and enhancements to existing applications … that customers are interested in deploying."
It is a small step toward opening up Cisco routers: Software that runs on the device will require a digital signature, and the company is pushing third-party distributors to sell through Cisco's official channels.
Rob Whitely, an analyst with Forrester, said the increasing number of services being baked into the network was forcing vendors to open up their platforms, with Cisco reluctantly following the trend.
"I give them partial credit," he said, noting that the opening of the ISR platform was a major step toward making APIs available, Cisco's current strategy with much of the rest of its hardware.
Whitely said 3Com was currently the leader in opening up with its Open Services Networking initiative. 3Com plans to open up a centralized marketplace for IT professionals to purchase and centrally manage services on their devices.
The potential benefits of opening up the networking infrastructure to third-party applications are numerous, and often industry dependent.
Avocent Corp., for example, has developed a patch manager for Cisco's ISR. Rather than forcing end devices at branch offices to communicate with a central patch server, updates are pushed out to the ISR, which then handles updates, reducing the duplicated data being sent out.
Avocent's product also enables remote IT managers to peer deeper into the branch networks, quickly inventorying branch assets and controlling access through the single point of entry without multiple devices for the branches to deal with.
Cisco routers are not the only devices opening up to outside tinkering, however. Almost all vendors are at least paying lip service to the idea, as are many suppliers of software, such as network management tool vendors.
Extreme Networks, for example, sees some potential to go green through the use of custom plug-ins.
The company has released through its Widget Central website tools to automatically turn Power over Ethernet (PoE) on and off, depending on time of day. An enterprise could, for example, shut off all IP desk phones during the night and then restart them before the first employees return to work.
The possibilities for baked-in applications to reconfigure how networking is done are still being explored, as are the models by which those applications will be shared and deployed. Cisco is betting that most of the activity will be with ISVs and value-added resellers looking to differentiate their products for specific markets, while Extreme is hoping for a healthy community of users willing to create and share widgets on its site.
For Cisco and other manufacturers, the benefits are clear: A rich ecosystem of third-party applications means their platforms are more likely to be indispensable to the networks that use them. What isn't clear is exactly how open these systems will eventually be, and when they will get there.
Nick Lippis, an analyst with Lippis Enterprises, said Cisco's move was a bold one, but it remains to be seen how far they will go today.
"The thing I'm not so clear on is how much developers will be able to really gain access [to the core router functionality]," Lippis said. He added that he thinks openness is quickly becoming a core part of the strategy to turn the network into an intelligent business platform rather than pure data plumbing.
"I think that this has been in the plans for a long time," he said. "Cisco is very seldom moved by competitors … they are moved by customers."
The only question is how fast Cisco will move there. Lippis said that Cisco is emerging as a leader in that direction, but others had doubts.
"They will be one of the last vendors to [fully open up]," Whitely said. "And they'll get there on their own timetable."