Cisco takes a first step in revamping IOS distribution

Cisco this week is expected to announce what it calls a simplified software distribution model for its routers and switches, and a new software tool to help users more easily manage large-scale networks.

The company plans to simplify how it delivers IOS software by shipping all of its gear with full-blown versions of IOS, in which users would activate feature packages via software licensing keys. Cisco's new software distribution model and licensing controls will let managers of large networks deploy router software and new features more easily, the company says. Administrators will also be able to get a better handle on what IOS versions are running across various devices, the company adds.

The change in Cisco's software distribution method is also the first step in a long-term transformation strategy on how its IOS software is sold and distributed, and how the code itself works.

Beginning sometime in the first quarter of 2007, all new Cisco routers and switches will ship with a kitchen-sink version of IOS -- every feature set and release train. Users will activate the features they want in the IOS via software key codes.

"This is definitely a change in how we've done this in the past," says Marie Hattar, Cisco's senior director of routing and switching. "This makes customers' IOS image selection, and ongoing maintenance, much easier."

Cisco says that in the near future, users will be able to activate three feature-set levels: IP Base, which is currently the default IOS image; IP Services and Advanced IP Services. This method for adding features will be easier for network administrators, "instead of having to download the software, qualify it and load it into the network," Hattar says.

There will be no changes to how Cisco prices IOS, just in the companies software delivery and licensing practices, Hattar adds. Also, this software distribution model will only apply to new routers and switches shipped with the complete, key-activated, IOS code base.

A new software tool, Cisco License Manager, will be used to automate license keys across devices in large networks. Besides activating IOS, this software tool can perform router/switch software audits, showing what IOS versions and features are running on a network.

Adding new features to routers in the past often meant network downtime, as well as the operational expense of staff having to download and install new software on the equipment, says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group. Cisco's new method, "makes the upgrade path much simpler. No more having to download new versions, or running multiple versions. All the code is just there."

The Cisco License Manager tool should also help users get a handle on their IOS environments, Kerravala says. "Customers can run tens, if not hundreds of versions of IOS on a network, which creates a lot of problems," in terms of software upgrades and patches. "The licensing tool could simplify that whole process."

Cisco says it plans to begin shipping network equipment with IOS under this new model with the first new routers and switches it introduces, "sometime in early 2007."

Cisco's new plans for software distribution and licensing could help cut down on the amount of hands-on contact involved with router maintenance, says Jeff Levy, manager of network and telecom services at ADC, a maker of telecom cabling and hardware. With a network of around 100 Cisco routers across as many remote sites, Levy says he keeps a close eye on what IOS versions and features are deployed. The ability to target specific features when turning on IOS could be a benefit, he adds. "You get extra stuff you probably don't use [in an IOS release ], which would be nice to turn off" or not activate.

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