Final thoughts from Cisco Live 2023: The platform’s the thing

This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala – SiliconANGLE.

It’s early June, so for networking professionals, it’s time for Cisco Live, Cisco Systems Inc.’s annual user event, which typically involves the announcement of a cornucopia of product news. The 2023 edition of Cisco Live was no different, although most product news was related to building broader solutions that leverage multiple products.

Going back to the days when the event was known as Networkers, I’ve been to somewhere in the 20ish range number of events, and this was the most comprehensive set of announcements that I can remember, as they spanned the entire product set but had a singular focus of raising the value of the end-to-end Cisco platform.

Accomplishing this would add value to both Cisco and its customers. In my interview on theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s video studio, at Cisco Live, co-host John Furrier used Apple Inc. as an example of a company that differentiates itself on ease of use. When the experience is Apple on Apple, things just work, seemingly magically. Apple has used this platform approach to go from a company close to being out of business to now worth nearly $3 trillion in value.

Furrier theorized that if Cisco can pull this off, it can be the next trillion-dollar company. Cisco currently stands at about $200 billion in value, meaning $1 trillion would indicate a fivefold increase. Can Cisco get there? Only time will tell, but the one thing I do know is that it won’t achieve this without the evolution to a platform.

With that as the backdrop, here are my top takeaways from Cisco Live 2023:

Cisco’s platform strategy is about cross-platform integration

It’s inaccurate to say Cisco wasn’t a platform, but it had been a collection of discrete platforms such as Meraki, Catalyst, Webex and the like. Some of this is the result of historical organizational structure, but much of it is because so much of the platform was assembled through mergers and acquisitions. The goal now is to remove the walls of the silos and create increasingly more value for its customers through great experiences.

One example is the Secure Access offering, part of the Cisco Security Cloud. The solution uses both network and security capabilities to make user access easier. Typically, when a user connects to a corporate asset, they are faced with several “if-then” scenarios, such as if I connect to application A, use a VPN; if B, then ZTNA; if C, then direct access.

Secure Access does all the heavy lifting for the user. It masks the complexity so that once the users are connected, they can access everything with the best network performance and proper security capabilities. At the event, I spoke to Jeetu Patel, Cisco’s executive vice president of security and collaboration, about this. “The goal was to make Secure Access the most boring demo ever,” he said. “A user sits down and starts working with no complexity.” Cisco seems to have achieved this.

Another example is the Catalyst-Meraki integration via the newly introduced Cisco Networking Cloud. Just two short years ago, customers had to choose between Meraki for cloud management and Catalyst for on-premises. Last year, Cisco introduced Catalyst visibility in the Meraki dashboard.

This year, Cisco introduced common application programming interfaces, cross-platform navigation, more ThousandEyes integration for end-to-end assurance, and a common user interface. The long-term vision is a single set of hardware that can be managed any way the customer wants with automated security and remediation. That’s several years away, but the company is on the way there.

Cisco has embraced openness and interoperability

Over the years, Cisco has been accused of being overly proprietary in locking customers in. I can point to many examples, such as its first version of power over Ethernet and EtherChannel. Once a vendor has achieved a dominant share position, this can prevent customers from moving but can also frustrate them as it limits choice.

Over the past several years, Cisco has moved away from this and embraced openness and interoperability as that’s what’s best for the customer. I recall my first meeting with Chuck Robbins in 2015 when he was named chief executive, and he promised that if something is good for the customer, Cisco will embrace it.

If one looks at its recent history, that’s certainly the case. Its collaboration devices work with many competitors, including Microsoft Corp., Zoom Video Communications Inc. and Google LLC. All of its network products use industry-standard protocols, making it simple for customers to bring competitors into a Cisco environment or vice versa. Some of its products, such as Acacia and ThousandEyes, are used by competitors, and Cisco has continued to ensure third parties can still leverage them.

The reality is that openness and standards-based increase utilization because that removes the risk for customers and makes deployments easier. I talked with John Davidson, Cisco’s executive vice president and general manager of networking, about this, and he told me, “The days of proprietary protocols like EIGRP are over,” which refers to a Cisco-built routing protocol that no other vendor supported.

He followed it up with the statement, “The world wants and needs openness.” It’s important to note that openness shifts competitive dynamics because a vendor now must win on its technical merits versus being the incumbent. Davidson is confident that Cisco will continue to be the best in class.

Cisco is using AI to improve the experience for users and IT pros

As one would expect, AI was a top theme at Cisco Live. As I mentioned in my preview post, Cisco has used AI for over a decade. Webex is loaded with AI features, as does its security and network operations tools. At the show, the company did reveal some new features that take care of some hard-to-impossible to solve problems.

One is a Webex feature called Cinematic Meetings, which uses multiple cameras and intelligent audio to enable remote participants to participate better in remote meetings. With this feature, a speaker can walk around a room, and the multicamera system will choose the best view, much like a movie director would. Meeting equity is very important for hybrid work, and Cinematic Meetings brings that.

Another new capability is a generative artificial intelligence-based policy engine called Policy Assistant, which uses natural language to simplify the management of policies across Cisco devices. Through the interface, administrators can describe the intent of a policy, and the AI engine will determine how to implement it best.

Cisco also introduced an AI-based security operations center analyst to contextualize events across e-mail, web, network and endpoints. This can help security teams better understand what happened, the impact of the event, and what the next action can be. Security teams face a growing amount of data, so much so that people can no longer keep up with it, but machines can. Now that Cisco has moved to its platform structure, customers should expect an acceleration of AI-based features.

Platform structure will change mergers and acquisition strategy

The shift to the multiplatform model has been a long process for Cisco because it had so many disparate products that came to it through the mergers-and-acquisitions channel. One question I had for the executive team during the analyst Q&A was how Cisco would think about M&A moving forward so it doesn’t wind up in this situation again a decade from now.

Robbins addressed this head-on. “The platform transition allows us to do M&A differently than we have in the past,” he said. He used collaboration as an example: “We rearchitected Webex during and after the pandemic to be an incredible platform and then made strategic acquisitions to layer on capabilities. That’s how we delivered noise suppression and other features, and this will be the model moving forward.”

Patel added, “We are maniacally focused on building great products that people love. If an acquisition accelerates our strategy, we won’t be shy about going out and buying it and making it part of the platform.”

Now that Cisco’s four platforms – full-stack observability, networking, cloud and collaboration — are done and built on modernized, cloud-native principals, it should make integration easier. Cloud-native integrates with cloud-native much faster than legacy products.

Microsoft Teams creates a Webex tailwind

People may read that and scratch their heads, as Teams had Webex have been bitter enemies for over a decade. Although Teams has become the dominant collaboration platform, it doesn’t do everything well and can be expensive. It’s a great internal chat tool, and its video meeting capabilities have improved, but calling has much to be desired. Also, though basic Teams is included in the E3 license, calling is an add-on, as are async video, webinars, events and other capabilities.

During his day two keynote, Patel modeled out all the extra features and found that a Microsoft customer would need to pay $39 to $64 per user per month extra. Cisco is proposing that customers keep using Teams but use Webex for the other capabilities, which will drop their price to just under $12 per user per month, creating significant savings while enjoying a Webex experience that is tightly coupled with Microsoft. Now that Cisco has embraced Microsoft and can make the Teams experience better, it should see an uplift in that business.

After the keynotes, I asked Brian Ortbals, vice president of global engineering at World Wide Technology, a $17 billion systems integrator and Cisco’s biggest partner, what he thought of the announcements. “This is what we have been waiting for,” he said. “The cross-product integration using the network as the foundation allows us to deliver more innovation to our joint customers faster than ever before. We can now focus on solving customer problems rather than worrying about integration issues, and that’s a win for everyone involved, including the end customer, which is most important.”

Overall, I left with an improved opinion of Cisco. The company had been making significant progress in its transition but seemed to have taken a big leap forward this year. Its platform strategy will speed up innovation and enable it to create customer experiences that no one else can.

Author: Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.