Chambers Envisions Cisco's Next Billion-Dollar Business - InformationWeek

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Chambers Envisions Cisco's Next Billion-Dollar Business

Service-oriented networks promise to mimic functions found elsewhere

Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers has a reputation for making bold statements. Back in 1998, he predicted networks of the future would involve the convergence of voice, video, data, and more onto IP--and, during Cisco's annual conference last week, Chambers pointed out he was right about that.

Now, Chambers and other Cisco execs have another vision to share. They're calling it a Service Oriented Network Architecture, or SONA--a conceptual framework for increasing business productivity by making networks more aware of applications and conducting some of the functions normally handled by systems software. Cisco says the result will be a $1 billion business that will come from products under the rubric of Application Networking Services.

Cisco aims to make networks primarily responsible for things such as compression, sequence caching, authentication, load balancing, and XML acceleration. It's taking "a lot of the functions that used to exist in applications, middleware, or the operating system and moving them into the network," Chambers said in the conference's opening address. It's an approach, however, that could put Cisco products in competition with middleware such as IBM's Tivoli application-management tools, notes Forrester analyst Rob Whiteley.

The path to SONA begins with several recently released products, including an application-acceleration engine and Cisco's line of Application-Oriented Networking modules, switches, and router plug-ins that, among other things, interpret and improve delivery of specific types of content such as Web pages and messaging services while enforcing security policies.

SONA takes Cisco deep into the network-management market. This week, the company will launch a new suite, dubbed the Cisco Network Application Performance Analysis Solution, that predicts bottlenecks before they happen and run "what if" scenarios that show how infrastructure and usage changes will affect a network and correlate that to application performance.

If SONA sounds familiar, it should. The computer industry is moving toward service-oriented architectures, and Cisco wants a piece of the action. The result is to put more intelligence, in the form of software code, into the core network. "For something to be scalable, it needs to be flexible," chief development officer Charles Giancarlo said at the conference. "Effectively, it needs to be programmable."

With the new architecture, Cisco thinks it can reduce IT costs in many areas, including systems- and application-integration and infrastructure. And SONA ties back to Chambers' 1998 vision. Although his latest brainchild isn't fully realized--and clearly is meant to grab more IT budget dollars--the general move to a more-capable network is a logical step as companies struggle to add bandwidth and converge more services.

Integrated Management
Cisco customer Case Western University has gone to all voice over IP and already has IP television in place, ridding itself of standalone telephony and audiovisual departments and cutting telecom costs. "Instead of having three or four management teams, we now have a single integrated management team that's delivering all these services across the enterprise," says CIO Lev Gonick. As SONA-oriented tools mature, the school is optimistic "we'll be able to blend our middleware team into an advanced network-management team as well." SONA, he says, is "baking the management tools right into the blades in the chassis."

Cisco has a history of getting it right, but SONA is a hard-to-grasp vision that left some analysts searching for clarification at last week's conference. It's unorthodox to announce an architectural framework months after delivering some of the products designed to support it. Yet the network-equipment market leader insists SONA represents the future, and its plan will become clearer as it delivers products in the coming year that emphasize automation and virtualization on the network.

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