Cisco CEO: "We are still only on the front end" of a new version of the network

Cisco's CEO Chuck Robbins says intent-based networking still has a long way to go, but products to support its initial phase are the fastest selling new product in the history of the company.

chuck robbins cisco
Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Fresh off a positive earnings call that saw Cisco report $11.9 billion in revenue for the 2Q 2018 — a 3 percent increase from the same quarter in 2017 and the first time in 6 quarters the company reported year-over-year sales increases — CEO Chuck Robbins has a lot to crow about.  

First of all, the company's most strategic new direction: The Network. Intuitive, more commonly known as intent-based networking is rapidly finding acceptance amongst customers, Robbins said.

+RELATED: Getting grounded in intent-based networking; What is intent-based networking?+

At the center of its intent-based networking plan is the Catalyst 9000 switch which found a home in 2,100 new Cisco customers premises this quarter — bringing the total to 3,100 since its announcement last June. Robbins called it the fastest growing product in Cisco's history.

Robbins talked with Network World's Michael Cooney about the status of the networking giant's key intent-based networking push, campus-switching directions and the use of artificial intelligence technologies in the enterprise in an interview after the recent earnings call.  

Cooney: Reflective of the earnings call, can you update our readers on the status of Network. Intuitive rollout?

Robbins: If you think about what's happening with our customers today, they are dealing with multiple public-cloud providers, they are dealing with 10, 20 or 50 SaaS providers they are getting services from, and they still have private data-center infrastructure to support. And then they have this explosion of IoT devices and increasing connectivity at the edge so when you look at all that, the network is really going to be at the heart of how customers manage increasing complexity.   

For those reasons and others, we last June announced Network. Intuitive because we felt like we need to fundamentally reinvent networking and how networks are built to accommodate what our customers are trying to deal with now and how we can help them manage this complexity in the future.

So we launched Network. Intuitive and the first platform was the Catalyst 9000, and we also launched the DNA Center which is an automation platform. We launched encrypted traffic analytics, which lets users see malware inside encrypted traffic without decrypting it. Fast forward to this quarter the real highlight for us was that our core innovation, the Catalyst 9000, had more than double the customers who have adopted the technology. It is the fastest ramping new product in the history of Cisco, which is pretty amazing.  

We had 1,000 customers after the first quarter, and we have 3,100 customers now. We have more platforms that will transition to this architecture. Enterprise customers, when you move them to a new architecture, they are going to take their time evaluating it to make sure it can integrate into their overarching management system and to make sure it is appropriately ready for their environments.   

Cooney: Can you delve a little deeper into the subscription idea and what that brings to customers?

The Catalyst 9000 was introduced with a subscription that brings a number of innovations to the customer. A couple weeks ago we added more features to the intent-based architecture around assurance across the data center, the networks as well as the WIFI networks.

The predominant number of the Catalyst 9000s are going out with the advanced software subscription which is really what enables the automation and the security embedded in the network and the analytics capability.  

So now if you look back at what our customers are dealing with around complexity and why this matters so much — Mckinsey [McKinsey Study of Network Operations for Cisco — 2016] had said the customers are spending $60 billion annually operating networks — three times what they spend on the network technology itself. The study also showed 80-95 percent of network changes are performed manually which leads to error, and 43 percent of the time the IT team spends troubleshooting network problems. So getting at all those issues is what we have been all about. That's what lead us to being this new version of the network, which candidly we are still only on the front end of.  

Cooney: Can you expand further to talk about the advanced software and why it is important?

If you go back to the original launch we talked about intent, which is really delivered through automation and context which is delivered through analytics. What we have done is re-written our operating system to not only support modern API structures and programmability but also to build analytics capabilities out of the network which helps deliver this context. So if you look at these assurance capabilities we have built, we have the Cisco Network Assurance engine, which use this verification of what's happening on the network to help keep the businesses running as the network is changing. We launched Cisco DNA Center, which is the assurance ability that feeds back into that overall DNA Center, which will be the crux automation and analytics platform. This gives greater insights and visibility to reduce time and money spent to get at those issues — like cutting down on troubleshooting costs across both wired and wireless environments.  

Also what we did is we actually created the capability to make this platform backwards compatible for a number of our products that are out there today this new operating system that we wrote enables it to support at least a full generation of products that customers could actually run across a broader set of products than just the Catalyst 9000, so not just limited to Catalyst 9000.  

Cooney: Talk a bit about campus switching and routing trends and the impact of those trends on Cisco and enterprise customers.

[Cisco CFO Kelly Kramer] did say that we saw solid bookings growth on campus switching on the call. [Kramer did in fact say that Cisco campus sales were strong. "It's up in orders but from revenue, we're still slightly down, modestly down, from a revenue this quarter. And we saw strong growth on the data center side. Within switching, we had strong growth in data-center switching and we're seeing great momentum with our new campus switch, the Cat 9000. We also had strong wireless growth driven by our Wave 2 offerings and Meraki. Data center was up double digits driven by server products as well as our HyperFlex offerings."]  

We talked about our momentum and the Catalyst 9000 success so I think that it's good to see things growing in that area.  In the enterprise routing space we now have Viptela [SD-WAN] and laid out our plans for the integration of the Cisco routing platforms and the Viptela platform, and we continue to work through that right now.  It will come to fruition later in the year, and we thing customers will begin to move on how they build out the next generation of routed networks.  

Cooney: Lastly there has been a lot of talk of the use of Artificial Intelligence technology in Cisco software — in Spark, and a recent announcement using it in conjunction with Mist to manage networks — can you talk about Cisco's use of AI and what impact that will have on enterprise customers?   

We have AI/machine learning integrated across our entire portfolio. You mentioned it relative to Spark; it is part of our security strategy to process all the threat information and be able to digest it and help customers dynamically defend across their entire architecture. We've got it in the entire notion of Network. Intuition. So taking the analytics and actually delivering back to our customers insights and predictability, it helps customers stay ahead of critical issues in their environments.  What we see is that AI is a core enabler of all of our technology, and in fact we just pulled together last week our first face-to-face AI summit for all the engineers around the company that are working on AI initiatives so that they can begin to share capabilities in what they are doing. We are very focused on it, I think it is a natural capability that is going to permeate our entire portfolio.

(Michael Cooney is a freelance digital journalist who has written about the IT world for more than 25 years.  He can be reached at mccooney1@gmail.com)  

This story, "Cisco CEO: "We are still only on the front end" of a new version of the network" was originally published by Network World.

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