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6/24/2005
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Can Cisco Sell Its Smarter-Network Vision?

Some Cisco customers are unclear about application-oriented networking and what it means to them.

If networks could speak the language of the software applications that run on top of them, they could do a better job of shuttling data around. That has been the vision of Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers for some time, and the company will take a leap toward that goal with its application-oriented networking technology, due later this year.

Still, the vendor has some convincing to do. "Cisco is taking a big risk, because it has yet to see whether companies are ready to put their applications on [an AON] network," says Ken Presti, an analyst at research firm IDC.

An AON-enabled network could recognize sensitive data and add security features to it, Cisco officials explain. Or it could view the contents of a purchase order in transit and ensure that it reaches its correct destination. Today, such functions typically are handled by middleware.

"AON will add a level of intelligence that will allow the network to understand the information coming from applications, as well as perform various functions on the information," Chambers says.

Yet some customers attending Cisco's Networkers 2005 user conference earlier this week said they don't quite understand the technology. Others, while finding the technology interesting, think it could be years before it's applicable to their companies.

"Our network is still going through changes, and we're not completely converged yet, so I'm still not exactly sure where [AON] would fit into our business," says Eddy Youkhanna, manager of global network architecture and engineering at financial-services firm Marsh & McLennan Cos., which is a Cisco customer. Cisco AON appears to be geared toward service providers that heavily rely on XML as a messaging protocol, something not widely used at Marsh, Youkhanna says. Cisco is betting the value of its technology will become clearer. BT Radianz, which provides network services to traders and brokers, is an early AON tester, building a service based on the technology that will give customers more detailed views of their transactions. "What traders want to know is not how long bits take to get across the wire, but how long it takes for an order to get to a broker and for [a broker] to acknowledge the order and respond," BT Radianz CTO Brenna Carley says.

A handful of smaller vendors sell application-aware networks, including Ciena, DataPower Technology, and NetScaler, with varying approaches. If Cisco's technology succeeds, analyst Presti says, it will help validate the concept.

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