During the past decade, nearly everything in the tech world has gone virtual: servers, applications, desktops, data centers, even jobs--at least to the tens of thousands of contractors doing full-time work at part-time pay with no benefits.
The one exception to the rule that virtual is better than physical is the one thing on which all the other advances in virtualization, cloud computing and job-creation avoidance depend: the network. At least, that's according to John Chambers, CEO of the company with the most to lose from any wholesale separation of the value of a network from the underlying hardware that makes it possible.
High-quality, high-speed, reliable, secure, multifunctional networks require both good hardware and good software, Chambers told investors and analysts on Cisco's earnings call this week (transcript via SeekingAlpha).
It's obvious that large-scale networking can't be done at all, let alone be done well, without solid hardware underlying the software that controls all the action.
It's only slightly less obvious--very slightly less--that Chambers wasn't making a generically obvious statement of fact. He was making a policy statement.
Anything that would reduce the importance of the name painted on networking is an obvious Bad Thing in Cisco's view.
Virtualization in this case means software-defined networking (SDN)--which is the TLA created to differentiate the flexible, dynamic reconfiguration of enterprise networks from virtual private networks that do little more than encrypt and decrypt network traffic between a client and server to make remote access more secure.
Chambers' effort to reiterate the indivisible union of Cisco software and Cisco hardware in the networks of its customers comes just as the company seems to be (financially) recovering from strategic confusion resulting from too much focus on its own ambitions and too little attention to the needs of its customers.
Rather than focus on sophisticated networking, Cisco went all in on videoconferencing, VoIP, digital signage, consumer video cams and a dozen other things that did little or nothing to advance Cisco's own core competency (which may be managing giant companies going through repeated mergers, rather than anything having to do with technology, but that's a question for another time).
In April 2011, Chambers sent a memo to employees acknowledging that the overly diversified company had "lost the accountability that has been a hallmark of our ability to execute consistently for our customers and our shareholders," leading to a yearlong reorganization, reconfiguration and wholesale recast of its strategy.
The process was more of a reorientation than a reboot. Cisco is still focused on making the transport and management of video and voice, virtual meetings, virtual collaboration and digital signage as integral a part of its product set as the movement of packets.
It doesn't see other virtuality as a critical element, even though SDN--or something like it--is widely accepted as the next logical step in the progression of flexible network infrastructures--one that matches the agility, performance and dynamic reassignment of resources provided by the cloud, virtual servers and all the other bits of virtualization that turned the IT industry on its head a few years ago.
SDN isn't about remote access. Its goal is to make configuration and management of large networks simpler and more flexible by letting network managers define capacity, membership, security, usage policies and other functions using software that doesn't care who made the hardware it's reconfiguring.
Next: It's Hard to Hit a Virtual TargetKevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio