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At Cisco Live, which took place in Berlin in February 2017, the networking business offered its usual insights into the future of the digital business, pushing its customers towards the software-centric, mobile-driven world that it is helping to create and launching a swathe of new products to support them.
Faced with the erosion of its traditional focus on supplying the network boxes that power global businesses, Cisco has discovered it has a key role to play in the digitisation of the enterprise; as more businesses transition down this route, intense pressure is brought to bear on the network.
But digitisation is much more than just improving business processes. It challenges society just as much – if not more so – than it challenges the c-suite. This is something that is not lost on Cisco’s new UK and Ireland CEO, Scot Gardner who replaced the long-standing and well-regarded Phil Smith last year.
Gardner came to the role as a veteran Cisco employee, having joined in September 1997 as an account manager, he has moved around Cisco’s UK business several times, running financial services and public sector, followed by a stint in charge of service providers that took him out into EMEA, before returning to Bedfont Lakes to take over the local business.
In the seven months since taking the job, Gardner tells Computer Weekly he has been particularly focused with how Cisco operates as a core element of the British economy, and even society, something that by his own admission he had not noted before.
“When you’re in the service provider world or running a line of business, you don’t see so much of the softer side of what Cisco does in the UK, so I think it’s great to come back and get involved in some of that more directly,” he says.
“One area where Phil was amazingly strong was in interaction with the community, our role in supporting education and our role in supporting the UK both as a business and as a place where citizens live and work.”
This speaks in part to one of the most profound changes that has taken place since Smith stepped back from the job; the June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union (EU).
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With the subsequent fall in the pound, and economic worries about the UK’s ability to compete on the global stage without the benefit of being part of a massive trading bloc, much of the prevailing sentiment now holds that the regional economy of London and southeast England will be relatively resilient in a post-Brexit Britain, while more deprived regions that received a lot of EU funding will struggle.
“One of the objectives that I’ve set for the team is what our role in the regions is,” says Gardner. “How do we drive to be digitally inclusive on a national level? Whatever your view on the outcome of the referendum, one thing you can say is that it shows the importance of, and need for inclusion more widely across the UK.
“Does Cisco have a role to play? I think we do, whether that be in skills development through our networking academy programmes, or whether it be more directly through actively pursuing projects and startups that are active in the UK.”
With the recent launch of the government’s new industrial policy, and subsequent to this conversation the launch of its digital strategy as well, Gardner says he believes that Cisco and the UK have a good opportunity to execute in an exemplary manner.
He points out that the UK remains at the forefront of a lot of technical innovation, and has one of the strongest startup cultures outside the US, so he hopes to make Cisco more active in harnessing these positives to provide a better outcome for the country.
Swift aiming to deliver ultrafast WiFi
One of the most interesting projects Cisco is currently working on, says Gardner, is called Swift, which stands for Superfast Wi-Fi In-carriage for Future Travel.
With the support of rail operator Scotrail, fibre network operator Level 3, as well as Innovate UK and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), Swift aims to deliver ultrafast 300Mbps Wi-Fi directly into train carriages.
“This is a really interesting project, because I have the opportunity to improve my experience as a commuter, something that a couple of times a week drives me fairly nuts,” says Gardner. “Some days when the train is packed being on the Wi-Fi is worse than not being on it.”
“Turning the carriage into a space where you can do business and transact, into a space you trust, is a really interesting thing because you can improve a lot of people’s daily experience in a short period of time.
“This is what makes for an exciting role. Some of the things we can do are potentially good for the economy and for people, as well as being part of Cisco’s business,” he says.
Skills evolution vital to catch the software transition
Cisco’s value to the UK is clearly becoming more important, but at its heart it remains a networking supplier, and perhaps the biggest trend affecting this core business is the growth of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV), which are completely changing how networks are designed, provisioned and run.
So what does this fundamental alteration to the network fabric look like for Cisco today? According to Gardner, there is no one answer to that question, because much depends on the reasons customers have for making the switch, which are manifold, driven by operational concerns, cost concerns, and so on.
SDN and NFV have both come a long way in the past 12 months and are increasingly popping up outside the world of communications service providers (CSPs) running vast, multinational networks.
This rapidly mainstreaming business reflects back onto Cisco’s involvement in the wider UK tech scene in terms of technical skills, a fundamentally constrained resource that automating network functions allows you to get around.
“The number of people with high-level network skills is not rising fast enough, so automation is one of the resolutions to that,” says Gardner, “freeing network engineers up to really let them get on with things that add value to the business rather than doing the day-to-day stuff.”
The dawn of software-defined also marks a fundamental change for traditional networkers. Gardner says that skills need to evolve to embrace both software and networking, so they may need to be able to understand programming and how to work in an application development environment as well. However, this can work in the opposite direction, too.
“At the same time, it’s still networking, right? Underneath it all, it’s still networking,” says Gardner. “Segment routing is a good example. It solved a problem we’d been trying to solve at the application layer for several years, but it was network engineers who sat down and solved it because it was a networking problem.”
“That’s a good example of where you need new skills, but you still need to understand what’s going on in the network, so we’re about embracing both. One of the things I’m doing with our team is bringing in more people with software skills and then we can train them in networking.”
Phil Smith interview
Shortly before Phil Smith stepped down from the role of Cisco UK and Ireland CEO in 2016 after 22 years in the post, Computer Weekly sat down with him to discuss digitisation, its impact on national productivity, and how enterprises can apply the lessons lived and learned by tech companies to their own strategy. Read the full interview here.