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Cisco Live 2019 highlights Cisco’s software-defined future

With day one announcements at Cisco Live 2019, including new certifications from DevNet, a multidomain architecture announcement and AI/ML for networking, Cisco leaves little doubt its future is software-defined.

SAN DIEGO—While some industry observers have wondered whether Cisco is truly transforming its technology approach, day one of its annual conference likely dispelled this uncertainty.

Cisco Live 2019 established the networking leader as connected to its hardware past but marching toward a software-defined future.

In various announcements in enterprise networking, multidomain cloud architecture and networking certification, Cisco made clear it is paving its future course by bringing network programmability and management from hardware to software. Software-defined principles also require new networking skills that focus less on traditional command line interface skills and more on networking programmability and automation skills. For a traditional hardware vendor, this shift to software-defined networking (SDN) and intelligent networking—an effort two-plus years in the making—signals a new technology architecture as well as a shift in vision.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins set the tone for this year’s event by tipping his hat to the theme of the show, “You make possible.” He noted that the conference’s 28,000 attendees don’t just implement and manage technology. Rather, he said, they define business strategy.

“You are at the heart of the strategy of every organization in the world,” Robbins said during the day one keynote. “Everything that every organization wants to accomplish goes through you. Technology is at the heart of everything.”  

Everything that every organization wants to accomplish goes through [IT].

Chuck Robbins, CEO, Cisco

These IT heroes, Robbins emphasized, are managing increasing IT infrastructure complexity and burgeoning threats—often without additional budget or headcount. As a result, they need to turn to software-defined capabilities, automation and machine learning (ML) to ease the burden of manual monitoring and management. Robbins noted that while Cisco’s past successfully managed hardware, the IT heroes of tomorrow will require new skills to help steer companies toward their business objectives.

As recent news reports indicate, Cisco has been on a path of transformation: Its revamped networking architecture, with a focus on a software-based approach and software as a service offerings, “is working,” wrote Jon Swartz in MarketWatch. As a result, customers have come to see Cisco less as a hardware vendor and more as a provider that connects “hardware and services,” Swartz wrote.

AI/ML for networking architecture

As security threats increase and as users, devices and data proliferate, IT teams need artificial intelligence (AI) to gain greater visibility into network activity. There are simply too many elements to monitor without supplementing human efforts. Cisco recently announced use of AI and ML in network monitoring, enabling network admins to detect anomalies that could threaten network security or performance and provide meaningful alerts on behavior contrary to a network’s own baseline of normal activity. The network can continually learn from the data and start to identify truly anomalous behavior based on its metrics for normal thresholds.

As Scott Harrell, senior vice president and general manager of enterprise networking, indicated in his blog on these announcements, customers see the value of this network monitoring.

“In early field trials of Cisco AI Network Analytics, we have seen the number of flagged incidents reduced by up to 75%,” Harrell wrote. “One of our customers, with a three-person network management team, tells us they call Cisco AI technology the “fourth member of the team.” AI enables IT teams to focus on business objectives, Harrell said.

“Having an AI tool . . . means IT staff can spend more of their time and resources on strategic projects that make their business better, more efficient, and more competitive,” Harrell wrote.

Multidomain architecture to manage IT complexity

Just as the network environment is complex to manage, the broader IT environment has become more dispersed and complex, requiring new approaches to network architecture. Networking management has encountered a slew of new problems to address given the proliferation of users, devices and data. Statista estimates 35 billion connected devices by 2021—combined with all the places that applications reside—from the data center to the cloud to the edge. The volume and dynamism of these computing experiences mandate a more automated, secure but also agile network that can stand up to this complexity.

“Users want access to whatever application on whatever device they are on, on whatever network they are on, at a coffee shop, at a conference—and that’s constantly changing,” said David Goeckeler, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco networking and security. “We now have this dynamic environment: users and devices constantly changing; applications and data constantly changing. We have to figure out how to integrate these domains. If you’re going to solve the problem of users, devices, applications and data—and that’s a dynamic equation—we have to start connecting these parts of the network together.”

Cisco’s path toward a more dynamic multidomain architecture began in earnest two years ago, with the launch of its intent-based networking technology (IBN), designed to bring networking provisioning and management to the software layer. By decoupling networking management from hardware and enabling the programmability of the network, intent-based networking (IBN) could make these tasks less manual, error-prone and time-consuming, freeing networking administrators for more strategic work.

Now, two years later, IBN continues to mature and has been extended across the spectrum of the IT environment—from on-premises data centers to clouds to the edge. Cisco’s calling cards are the ability to build security natively into these network architectures up front as well as an ability to better integrate these domains together with improved security and performance.

DevNet certifications signal SDN shift

Today’s announcements also reflect Cisco’s ongoing shift to software-defined networking management, which requires a commensurate shift in network engineers’ skill sets. Many IT pros need to move from the command line interface to networking programmability skills.

Remember when SDN was going to kill Cisco? It didn’t quite work out that way.

David Goeckler, EVP and GM, Cisco networking and security

Cisco is helping IT professionals gain the skills they need to transition to the software-defined networking era. It is launching the DevNet Automation Exchange, a community-based developer center to accelerate success with network automation. The Exchange is paired with new DevNet certifications for network professionals that bring software skills to networking.

“The new network fundamentally changes the role networks can play, but it also changes how networking is done,” said Susie Wee, senior vice president and chief technology officer of DevNet, the networking programmability community, in a blog unveiling the certification news and bringing software skills to networking. “We need people and teams with the right skills and the right practices,” she said.

As Goeckeler noted, some industry observers initially saw software-defined networking as the death knell for Cisco, a historically hardware-based networking provider. But Cisco embraced SDN rather than remaining entrenched in hardware.

“Remember when SDN was going to kill Cisco?” Goeckeler said. “It didn’t quite work out that way.”

Some industry observers anticipated that software-defined networking would engulf Cisco. Instead, Cisco rode that wave to embrace its own software-defined future.

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”