Most of the company events we attend are focused on how infrastructure vendors’ products support digital transformation and enable their customers to pull insights out of their data to improve all levels of their business. At Cisco LIVE in San Diego 22,000+ people had a chance to see how Cisco’s technology was helping customers in their digital transformation (Cisco calls it “intent-based networking”), but also learn about some significant changes going on in Cisco as well.
About four years ago Cisco embarked on a mission of corporate transformation that started with a more traditional threats/advantages analysis and evolved into their current focus on culture and customer experience. More than the diversity and enablement message we’ve seen other companies talk about, Cisco said that a supportive, empowering atmosphere also makes the company better; people are more creative and more productive and encouraged to take risks, which leads to more innovation. This cultural focus includes actively managing their customers’ experiences from initial engagement through long term product support.
Cisco shared some data about the effectiveness of their culture focus. The current Catalyst 9000 series was the fastest ramping product in company history and their stock price has doubled in four years. Cisco was #42 on Fortune’s Great Places to Work list four years ago, and this year is #6. CEO Chuck Robbins has led this effort, and shared the stage with Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas, and Chief Customer Experience (CX) Officer, Maria Martinez.
All the infrastructure companies are talking about putting more intelligence into their products, using advanced analytics and AI/ML to drive insights that lead to innovation, etc. This means making the network smarter and more autonomous. Intent-Based Networking is a concept Cisco is using to describe network operations and management that are guided by an organization’s requirements or their intent.
This technology uses analytics, machine learning and automation to “continuously align the network with business needs” (according to Cisco messaging) regarding things like compliance, security, service levels, etc.
During the keynote at Cisco LIVE 2019, 100+ year old Emerson Electric, a big Cisco customer, showed how Intent-based networking and ubiquitous connectivity of sensors and edge computing devices drives predictive modeling for corrosion inside pipes in a refinery environment.
At Cisco LIVE 2019 there were some updates and new products in networking and security, but from a storage-related product perspective, Cisco had only a few announcements surrounding this event.
Cisco HyperFlex Edge Nodes are 1U, single-CPU, 3 SSD modules that can be configured in two-node clusters using a witness agent that runs as a separate VM. This quarter, Cisco announced an upgrade to the Edge Node that enables this witness node to run on Intersight, Cisco’s cloud-based management and analytics platform.
The HyperFlex Acceleration Engine is a PCIe off-load card that’s designed to handle data reduction tasks, preserving CPU cycles to accommodate IO for their high-performance configurations, such as all-NVMe. Cisco also announced an all-NVMe node, an HX220c M5 server with 8 capacity SSDs (up to 32TB raw) plus an Optane SSD for cache.
UCS and Cisco Data Intelligence Platform
UCS (servers, switching fabric and management software) is the compute and networking foundation for most Converged Infrastructure (CI) products, which the company sells in partnership with the major enterprise storage vendors. These include NetApp, Pure Storage, IBM, Dell EMC and Hitachi, all of which were major exhibitors.
Earlier this month Cisco announced the Data Intelligence Platform (CDIP) a set of Cisco Validated Designs that feature UCS servers with internal storage devices, CPUs and FPGAs, in scale-out configurations, instead of traditional storage systems. These reference architectures support big data applications with Cloudera, Hortonworks and MapR, compute-intensive environments with Kubernetes (RedHat and OpenShift) and object storage infrastructures with Swiftstack, Scality and Cloudian.
Cisco acquired a company called “Accompany”, started mostly by ex-Google employees, that created a data ingestion engine that hunts for information available on the internet about people and organizations. This data is captured and fed into workflow collaboration applications, such as WebEx, to provide immediate information on WebEx call participants, as well as ongoing updates. This is an automated, supercharged replacement for the quick LinkedIN or Google search that people often do before they jump on a call with unfamiliar participants.
Cisco is embedding this capability into their call center software (so they can know more about their customers who call in) and many other messaging and collaboration platforms, such as Slack, MS Teams, Google, etc.. The SVP of Cisco’s Collaboration portfolio, Amy Change, predicts this technology, which will be out later this year, will impact 300 million people.
Most tech companies are a couple years into the AI and analytics hype cycle, each touting how their more intelligent products and advanced analytics will enable customers to be more informed and make more insightful decisions. At some level this could be seen as a quantitative process, armed with more and better information people are more productive.
Cisco’s focus on culture and empowerment could be seen as a qualitative process, one that assumes happier, supported people are more productive as well. What’s interesting is that these two efforts aren’t mutually exclusive, and giving employees better information in the right company culture could result in the best possible outcomes.
As an “arms merchant”, supplying most of the major storage vendors in the Converged Infrastructure space, Cisco is not particularly interested in disrupting the CI status quo with HCI. This is one of the reasons why the company is being careful with HyperFlex and not promoting it as a replacement for their converged solutions.
However, we’re seeing HCI move up in the data center to support more important applications, and those generating more performance- and resource-intensive workloads. Based on our latest study “CI – HCI in the Enterprise 2019”, HCI has crossed a threshold and become a viable tier-1 solution for enterprise IT.
We expect HCI to chip away at the CI installed base, as these products come up for refresh and enterprise IT looks for ways to reduce management overhead and improve agility. Rather than let another HCI solution into the data center, Cisco’s partners will promote their HCI over their CI products that are on the floor.
At that point, Cisco, will have to switch from being a CI partner to an HCI competitor with HyperFlex. The HyperFlex Acceleration Engine doesn’t look to be a determining feature for most use cases, but HyperFlex’s ability to connect to existing UCS servers may be as companies look to smooth the transition of some of their CI infrastructure to HCI.