Can Cisco Systems Sell A Smarter Network? - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Can Cisco Systems Sell A Smarter Network?

Company needs to convince customers of application-oriented networking's value

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's 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.

"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.

AON lets networks understand and act on data, CEO Chambers says.

AON lets networks understand and act on data, CEO Chambers says.
By understanding what it's transporting, an AON-enabled network will recognize sensitive data and add security features to it. 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. Cisco's forthcoming AON technology is a blade that runs special software and takes one of the slots in a switch or a router.

The key benefit to the approach is reducing IT complexity by having the network play a more active role in application-to-application communications, says Cisco chief technology officer Charles Giancarlo. Customers that have Cisco's Catalyst 6500 Series switches or 2600, 2800, 3700, and 3800 Series routers won't have to replace their existing infrastructure and can plug in AON blades when they become available, Giancarlo says.

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. Some customers attending Cisco's Networkers 2005 user conference last 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, a member of the global network architecture and engineering team 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," Radianz CTO Brennan 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, it will help validate the concept, analyst Presti says.

Cisco has some key vendors in its camp. IBM plans to build support for Cisco AON into its WebSphere middleware, and SAP says it will do the same for its NetWeaver integration and application platform and its Business One business-intelligence software.

This story was modified on July 8 to correct Eddy Youkhanna's title.

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