The network is the platform?

At Cisco Systems Inc.’s Worldwide Analyst Conference last week, an employee offered a tour of the company’s commercial solutions lab. Situated at the company’s San Jose, Calif. campus, the lab has rooms set up to resemble customer sites, including an Internet cafe, a school, retail store and a hotel.

In an area designed to simulate a hotel room, the lab’s technology manager, Percy Kawas, unwittingly provided a live demonstration of a problem Cisco is trying to solve with its application networking services (ANS) strategy, which the vendor announced during the conference.

Kawas showed journalists an IP phone that could be set up in a hotel room to let staff and guests do things you can’t do with a regular phone, such as record purchases from the in-room bar.

But when he tried to access some of the software, it did not show up on the IP phone screen.

“This application is from a server which is not under my control,” he said. “It’s in another building.”

Cisco’s service-oriented network architecture (SONA), of which ANS is a key component, would allow network components to work directly with applications running over the network, rather than just deal with packets and protocols.

An “application-aware” network is supposed to prevent problems like latency and reduce the amount of computing and storage space that goes unused. Cisco CEO John Chambers’s vision of the future is one in which the network is the platform on which applications are run. Cisco also wants to be perceived as a technology vendor that solves business problems, rather than simply one that sells appliances.

By making the networks work better with the applications running over them, Cisco has the potential to evolve from being a network equipment maker to an end-to-end IT systems provider. At least this is what corporate IT managers might think if they buy into the concept of the network as a platform.

This mantra sounds similar to the slogan “The Network is the Computer,” used by Sun Microsystems to promote its vision of thin-client computing, where all applications run on a server rather than a client. Thin-client computing is not as widespread as Sun and other proponents (including Lotus and Oracle at the time) envisioned, but many applications are running over networks as companies connect branch offices to centralized data centres over wide-area networks. This means transaction processing and other business-critical software is no longer under the control of the users — just like the demo software in Cisco’s commercial solutions lab.

By making the networks more aware of the applications running over them, Cisco is making a bold move. It’s an idea that should appeal to IT managers whose users don’t care whether their work is interrupted due to a problem with the server, the network connection, the switch, the operating system or the software running over the network. They only care whether they can do their job. Cisco has the potential to provide something truly different from companies that simply sell switches, routers, firewalls and other network appliances. It also has the potential to be perceived as an end-to-end IT systems provider — even though the server might be made by HP or IBM, the operating system by Microsoft or Sun, the database by Oracle or IBM and the application by SAP. But if any one of those systems fail, who is the IT manager going to blame? It depends on which vendor, in the mind of the IT manager, is associated with the end-to-end system.

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Greg Meckbach is the editor of Communications & Networking. Shane Schick will return on Monday.

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