Cisco eschews cloud services - for now

Cisco's cloud strategy first and foremost relies on supplying infrastructure. Cisco supplies roughly 80% of the Internet's infrastructure and became a $40 billion company in 25 years by selling switches and routers to service providers and enterprise

Cisco's cloud strategy encompasses pretty much everything under the sun save one - actual cloud services.

Cisco vows, for the time being anyway, not to get into cloud services and compete with Amazon, Google and other cloud providers that may be Cisco customers, says the company's new cloud computing chief.

"Cisco's motto is to be the arms supplier," says Lew Tucker, Cisco's Cloud CTO, who joined the company about six months ago from Sun. "Cisco, right now, has no intention of being a cloud provider."

Cisco's strategy is based on three pillars: supplying infrastructure to cloud providers and enterprises; lining up partnerships to help customers deploy cloud services; and developing platforms and technologies to accelerate cloud adoption, through secure and collaborative access from tablets, TelePresence systems and IP phones.

Larry vs. Lew

At Sun, Tucker was heading up the company's effort to become a cloud service provider when Oracle acquired Sun. Tucker moved on to Cisco after Oracle CEO Larry Ellison showed little enthusiasm for Sun's cloud ambitions.

"I was building the Sun cloud, which was Sun Microsystems' attempt to go after essentially an Amazon-style developer cloud," Tucker says. "We were just ready to launch that at the time of the Oracle acquisition. Larry Ellison seemed to blow hot and cold on cloud computing, so that day he didn't like it. We closed that project and then I moved over to Cisco."

The Cisco approach to cloud differs from Sun's, however. Sun was looking to be a provider of cloud services for developers. Cisco is focused pretty squarely on the network infrastructure.

"Cloud computing is the next evolution of the Internet," Tucker says. "It draws upon a lot of those pathways of innovation Cisco has been involved in."

That's why Cisco's cloud strategy first and foremost relies on supplying infrastructure. Cisco supplies roughly 80% of the Internet's infrastructure and became a $40 billion company in 25 years by selling switches and routers to service providers and enterprises.

The same nuts and bolts used in those networks can also be used to build public and private clouds, Tucker asserts.

Cisco and partners

But Cisco is also counting on its partners, such as VMware, BMC Software, EMC, NetApp and others, to help customers deploy and provision cloud services. Cisco, EMC and VMware formed the VCE Coalition last year, an effort to integrate and uncomplicate the build-out of next-generation data centers by pre-packaging and certifying interoperability of servers, storage, networking and virtualization.

Some analysts say the VCE Coalition is a differentiator for Cisco in competing with IBM, HP, Oracle and Dell for cloud market-and mind-share.

"One of the things on Cisco's side and one of the issues with VCE is the fact that infrastructure is complex," says Chris Wolf, an analyst with Gartner. "When we're adding server virtualization or network virtualization or I/O virtualization in the data path, it gets that much more complex. Having a well-defined and endorsed architectural blueprint to draw out infrastructure as a service is something that customers have been very interested in."

More recently, Cisco and BMC announced that they are collaborating on a platform to help service providers automate the provisioning of cloud services. And Cisco is making strategic acquisitions to further its cloud ambitions as well. The recent purchase of LineSider, a maker of network provisioning software for virtual data centers and clouds, is key to allowing Cisco to offer public and private cloud customers products that automate the delegation and enforcement of policies among virtual machines and physical assets.

Indeed, if there's a weakness in Cisco's cloud strategy, it is in management, Wolf says.

"Vendors like HP and IBM, and even now Dell to a degree, are backing up hardware with a pretty mature management platform," Wolf says." That area of enterprise management is still relatively new to Cisco and they're relying on some of their partners like CA and BMC to help fill some of those gaps."

Cisco's relying on internal development to bolster the third pillar of its strategy - secure and collaborative access. Cloud plays into Cisco's newer market endeavors, like collaboration, videoconferencing and tablet computing. Cisco's Cius tablet, for example, is positioned as a secure interface to cloud-based collaboration services, as are Cisco's TelePresence consoles, when collaboration includes HD video.

Even though Tucker dismisses the notion of Cisco becoming a cloud service provider, he doesn't totally rule it out. And given his background developing a cloud for Sun's developers, combined with Cisco's reliance on partners to further its cloud goals, observers note that Cisco's reluctance to enter into cloud services could change swiftly.

Indeed, Cisco already has SaaS offerings: WebEx for collaborative meetings and ScanSafe for Web security. SaaS is viewed by many in the industry as essentially cloud-based application hosting. But Tucker emphasizes that SaaS and cloud are separate and distinct.

"[WebEx] means we are a SaaS provider, as opposed to being a core infrastructure, IaaS provider," Tucker says. "Even with our SaaS offerings, we're looking at providing multiple ways of delivering them, either in a hosted way or [allowing] service providers to offer them as services."

Tucker and Cisco believe that public and private cloud computing will be specialized according to vertical industry, such as separate clouds will serve specific vertical markets - media, government, financial services, healthcare, gaming. These clouds will be defined and designed according to the regulatory and compliance mandates of those particular vertical markets, Tucker says.

Cisco also plans to virtualize the WAN acceleration, firewall and load balancer hardware appliances it now sells and make them cloud-based networking services. Cisco is already doing this with its Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) appliance.

The benefit of this to the IT shop would be rapid provisioning of WAAS, firewall and load balancing services on demand; and the ability to move these services along with the virtual machine as the VM moves around and between data centers in the cloud.

Cisco's strategy is not without challenges. In addition to the management issue, Wolf notes that the company has to do a better job of articulating the benefits of an IT shop or service provider adopting Cisco's design.

"They need to spend more time on getting customers to understand the journey and map it out for them," Wolf says. "When Cisco's coming into a shop on the server hardware side, they're talking to a server group where they never had any real dialogue with them in the past. So if I'm mainly an HP shop, here's how you can get to Cisco, here's how you can leverage us in a heterogeneous environment."

But as the leading switch and router supplier to enterprises and service providers, Cisco has a good head start.

"They're certainly working from a position of strength when it comes to an issue of mobility and network access," he says. " But success [in cloud] remains to be seen."

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