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Practical Analysis: IT Pros Don't See Cisco's Claimed TCO Advantage

Network architects want automation, virtualization support, and standards, and they aren't getting all that from Cisco.

Cisco has been fighting a PR battle with competitors over a Gartner report, released in November, that says multivendor networks are less complex to run than all-Cisco networks and could translate into a 20% cost savings over five years. Competitors love the report, of course, while Cisco says Gartner's advice is myth-based.

Cisco says the problem is that Gartner, and networking Johnny-come-latelies such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell, talk and think too much about acquisition price and not enough about long-term total cost of ownership. Perhaps, but what do IT pros think matters, and where do they put Cisco?

In our InformationWeek Analytics IT Pro Ranking of data center networking vendors, we asked just that. As it turns out, IT pros agree with Cisco: Acquisition cost isn't the most important consideration. In fact, it ranks fifth of 10 criteria, after reliability, performance, operation cost, and quality of post-sales support.

With a priority list like that, a white-glove vendor such as Cisco must stand out from the competition, right? Wrong. Cisco fares well in our ranking, but HP and Brocade do just as well, and IBM and Juniper are close behind.

Clearly, Cisco must attribute some benefits to its own products that its customers don't, and here's where our survey respondents agree with Gartner. While Cisco gets high marks for reliability, performance, and the breadth of its product line, it gets low marks for service innovation, operation cost, and acquisition cost. HP and Brocade top Cisco on operation and acquisition cost. In other words, based on the experience of IT pros, Cisco is the one living the myths, not Gartner.

As much fun as it is to watch a major vendor defend untenable positions, the main point is that while reliability and performance got Cisco to the top of the heap (the fans were so strong in the original AGS routers that they held the faceplate on even when the screws were removed), those attributes are no longer so important. Merchant silicon is so good that two electrical engineers and a kid with a soldering iron can make a pretty reliable wire-speed 10-Gbps Ethernet switch with redundant power supplies and fans. What's not so easy to do is support emerging technologies like virtualization with a flexible and powerful management architecture. That takes some engineering, and standards work.

Not good for Cisco. In the same survey, we asked which features matter most for data center switches. The answer: virtualization support, adherence to standards, and configuration automation. IT pros care least about proprietary technology in advance of standards and a migration path from 40-Gbps to 100-Gbps Ethernet. You can start to see the challenge for Cisco, whose management system for Nexus tries too hard to preserve the legacy interface for IOS, doesn't do enough for automation, and of course assumes an all-Cisco environment. As a result, Cisco is in the middle of the pack on feature scores, which makes it hard for the company to demand its usual acquisition price premium.

Every networking vendor will be talking about standards, ease of management, and virtualization and automation. And as a result, it'll be increasingly tough for Cisco to find a TCO case that offsets its high acquisition cost. This Gartner report is on the money.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/6/2013 | 6:16:57 AM
re: Practical Analysis: IT Pros Don't See Cisco's Claimed TCO Advantage
The problem is that Cisco believes that the IOS is macho and the only way to configure networks. Sure a command line interface is useful and faster if you already know it. Cisco's argument is that the IOS runs faster because there is less overhead. That's a reasonable assumption, but why can't you have a application that loads a config file onto the switch or router. It's important to understand the underlying technology, but it should not necessarily mean you need to use the IOS all the time.

Cisco's network management products are poor and jumble of disparate products. Cisco's idea of network management is a creaky application called Ciscoworks that has memory leaks and crashes often. 3com had a network management product that you could visually configure diff-serv almost 15 years before Cisco finally got around to implement it. It is only by market dominance that Cisco has able to force their customers to use the IOS.

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