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Cisco Attacks Multi-Vendor Networks

Price isn't everything and equipment from other networking vendors simply isn't good enough, a defensive Cisco said during a webcast on Wednesday. The networking giant was responding to a report from the influential analyst firm Gartner that said Cisco customers can save money by buying from other networking vendors. As the clear market leader in most categories of networking equipment, Cisco and its partner BlueWater Communications Group used the webcast to explain why cost savings shouldn't be the most important factor when choosing networking gear.

Both the original Gartner report and the Cisco response are framed as myth busting. Published in November last year, the Gartner report was called "Debunking the Myth of the Single-Vendor Network." The report said exactly what Cisco's competitors wanted to hear--that contrary to popular belief, multivendor networks were less complex than all-Cisco networks, and that Cisco customers who introduced a second networking vendor reduced their total cost of ownership by about 20% over five years.

In the months since, Cisco competitors have been promoting the report online and having their sales team hand it out to prospects. Non-Gartner clients can download the whole thing courtesy of Dell, which would love to do to Cisco what it did to IBM.

Cisco's answer is to change the question from one of cost to one about the importance of the network itself. "There's a debate ranging about whether the network really matters," said Rob Lloyd, Cisco executive VP of worldwide operations, in the webcast, titled "Debunking the Myth of the Good-Enough Network" (archived here). He cast one side of this debate as "newcomers to the networking industry and some industry commentators who believe that the value of the network should be determined by the cost of its components," the other as people who recognize "the fundamental contribution that the network can make to driving innovation, productivity, and enabling new business models." Cisco's basic argument is one that all IT pros should be familiar with and from which few would dissent: that it's better to add value than focus on cutting costs.

In service of this, the webcast and its associated whitepaper detail seven other myths ranging from security is an add-on product to the network has a single purpose. Overall, they're hard to disagree with, and build a compelling case for the idea that the network can add value and is still an arena of innovation. The only problem with Cisco's argument is that most other vendors are saying the same thing; the industry is filled with vendors who say they want to make the network into a platform for converged applications, not just a commodity pipe.

The focus on cost saving also misses the point that the motivation for adding a second networking vendor is often to bring in new and innovative technology. When InformationWeek Analytics asked 468 IT professionals about their network vendors for a report that ranked data center networking vendors (available here), we found that Cisco was tied for first place with HP and Brocade, and that Juniper and IBM weren't far behind. Smaller vendors can be very innovative too, something that Cisco's history of acquisitions shows it understands better than anyone.

One potential concern for customers is that such aggressive promotion of a single-vendor strategy could signal a shift away from Cisco's previous commitments to interoperability. After all, networking is all about connecting disparate systems together and Cisco didn't get to its near-monopoly position by refusing to play well with others. Every vendor wants to promote itself and bash its competitors, but saying that users should never buy from anyone else is a step further. However, Lloyd emphasized that Cisco is still committed to standards, positioning Cisco proprietary technologies as standards of the future. The webcast cited multiprotocol label switching, spanning tree redundancy, and Fiber Channel over Ethernet as examples of current standards that started life in Cisco products.

The weakness with Cisco's approach is that some parts of networking really are commodities; it's not a myth that today's bleeding edge innovation is tomorrow's commodity. The weakness with Gartner's position is that the pace of commoditization is different in every organization and even department, depending entirely on what the network needs to be used for. There are some areas where a single-vendor architecture is appropriate, some where cheep and cheerful will do, and some that need the latest and greatest from a hot new startup. Where IT can really add value is by knowing the difference.