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Cisco Renews Focus on Network Engineers

As Cisco expanded beyond switching and routing, network engineers had to put up with buggy code and a loss of innovation. The company is finally showing network engineers they haven’t been forgotten.

To manage a network is to love it. Is that too sentimental to describe hunks of electrified metal and silicon that happen to bolt nicely into a 19-inch rack? Perhaps for some, but not me. I and many other packet pushers have a passion for networking that drives our work, motivates research, and inspires discussion.

Most networking engineers have a relationship--good or bad--with Cisco. Cisco started in the routing business, then expanded into switches, and over time added firewalls and IPS devices (to mixed reviews). Voice over IP became a popular choice to replace aging PBX and key systems, and Cisco took a strong position.

All of these plays made sense to those of us working on Cisco gear. Cisco, mostly through acquisition, was entering markets that played to its strengths and allowed it to walk into sales opportunities with a complete, integrated networking package. Network engineers worked on this gear, formed their relationships and, in many cases, became internally aligned with Cisco.

Then it got weird. As stockholders looked for continued growth, Cisco had to cast its gaze ever-wider to acquire companies that could boost the bottom line. "Linksys? That's consumer networking gear. Ew. But I'm sure it will be fine," engineers thought. "Scientific-Atlanta? They make set top boxes? What the heck am I going to with that? But I'm sure it will be fine." "Pure Digital? As in those little Flip cameras? I don't I get it, but I'm sure it will be fine."

[Cisco is gearing up to expand its bottom line via services. Find out how in “Cisco Aims to Increase Services Business.”]

But Cisco wasn't fine. Cisco spread itself thin as it chased markets outside its networking core. The perception among network engineers was that Cisco was shifting away from its fundamentals--creating value-added networks--and into a mode of throwing everything at the wall to see what might stick.

That had repercussions on our own networks. First was software quality. While bugs are common in any software product, the sheer volume of bugs showing up in networking software--even in mission-critical code for core equipment--forced engineers to choose between bad and ugly: Stick with the devil you know, or trade in the bugs you have for new ones.

The other issue was the slow release of new products and features, which prevented Cisco from leading in certain market segments. One need only look at the Nexus switching line, formidable though it is, and compare it to Arista 7500E's high port density and aggressive per-port pricing, or to Brocade VCS's ease of use to see where vendors leaped past Cisco on performance or technical innovation.

Another example is in network operating system virtualization, such that network engineers can model their networks to test changes and learn new features in a low-cost, low-risk environment. While the open-source (and arguably rogue) Dynamips and GNS3 filled this gap for Cisco engineers, Juniper released Junosphere and Arista debuted vEOS, but Cisco had nothing official available.

Next page: Change You Can Believe In

Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, is a hands-on networking practitioner who has designed, built and maintained networks for higher education, state government, financial institutions, and technology corporations. Ethan is also a host of the Packet Pushers Podcast. The technical ... View Full Bio

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