Jim Duffy wrote an article covering the 16th annual Cisco Partner Summit in San Diego, which you can read here. Jim reports that John Chambers asked the following poignant question, which Jim fittingly chose to close his article with:
How do we become the most trusted IT partner our customers have?
That’s a very telling sort of a question to ask of the partners you rely upon to help spread the Cisco gospel. The question implies something that I think is critical to understanding a perception of Cisco in the marketplace right now: Cisco has lost some of the trust they once had. Without a doubt, Cisco will remain a ubiquitous presence in the data centers and enterprise networks of the world for years to come. And yet, somehow things are different. Some in the marketplace are looking at Cisco with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and starting to bring in competitors for exploratory meetings. Implicit trust in Cisco wares and the Cisco brand is not taken for granted in circles where once it was.
So let’s talk…just us. If the Tasman Drive Thought Police were to probe your mind, what would they find? If it wasn’t for my tinfoil, lead-lined cap, this CCIE knows a few observations they’d find in his grey matter.
- Frustration with technical support. The TAC experience has declined for me over the last few years. When I call TAC, it’s almost always because I’m the victim of a bug. Sure, I might misconfigure something or ask TAC to sanity check me; that happens – I’m not saying I’m above that. But usually if I’m on with the TAC, it’s because something isn’t working properly, and I need confirmation of a bug ID. I’m just not getting the sort of responses I used to get. Once upon a time, when I’d upload a diagram with icons, a wiring topology, MAC addresses, and IPs, plus logs of the relevant events, I’d get an engineer who’d say, “Thanks! I’m going to recreate this in the lab to confirm.” And they’d confirm, offer a workaround, and we were done. Not anymore. Now I get push back, second-guessing, and finger-pointing. I get resistance – people who just want to dump the problem back on me and not deal with it. So what’s this got to do with trust? If I can’t rely on my vendor to support their product *well* via their expensive annual support contract that they insist I buy, then that is a breach of my trust as a customer. I want TAC to be my advocate, not my adversary.
- Lack of innovation, and/or overcharging for innovation. I want Cisco to come out with the speediest, most technically brilliant, gosh-darned clever IT networking solutions there are. While there are indisputable moments of technical excellence and thought leadership, I began thinking of Cisco as a market trailer some years ago. FabricPath is a good example of what I mean. Nexus hardware can suitably run FabricPath…but I can’t afford to license that feature. Cisco’s proprietary TRILL is a license-only add-on that’s thousands extra per box. So, while you could argue that a TRILL implementation (even a proprietary one) is an innovative offering, Cisco is missing an opportunity to drive market adoption by charging customers large amounts of money to put FabricPath into play. Yes, lots of us are buying Nexus gear, but the most many of us are doing with it is vPC. What a waste. While vPC breaks the single chassis barrier by offering MEC, it still effectively locks east-west traffic into a north-south topology. So what’s this got to do with trust? Cisco isn’t driving technology trends, and hasn’t been for a while. Instead, they are following the dollar, and I’m weary of licensing schemes that make me pay extra to get what is usually a nominal increase in functionality that I should have had to start with. The licensing schemes are as befuddling to Cisco sales reps and VARs as they are to end customers like me, and Cisco even writes whitepapers to explain their licensing, even for simple platforms (!). That makes Cisco a foe to be outwitted, not an IT partner to be trusted.
- Cisco code releases are buggy to the point of being comic relief. A few simple examples I’ll make to get this point across. (1) Cisco’s SafeHarbor program has ceased to be meaningful. I am running a SafeHarbor recommended release of IOS SX on a pair of 6500s, and the software has issues with what I consider rudimentary routing functionality. EIGRP neighboring issues when using physical links instead of SVIs. EIGRP processes slowly leaking memory (not much, but I’m graphing it and watching it climb on two different 6500s). If SafeHarbor can’t root out those sorts of problems, then the program is useless to me as a customer as it negatively impacts both functionality and stability. (2) Cisco ASA code is just sort of sad, to the point that running a bug scrub on the 8.4 family will make you want to give up all hope of a stable firewall. While I’m finally having good success with 8.4(3), it’s not completely got my confidence as yet. (3) NX-OS bugs are becoming legendary in the Twitterverse. Almost every person I know running Nexus gear in production has expressed frustration with NX-OS’s bugginess. The question I see tied to new NX-OS releases isn’t “what bugs does it fix” but “what bugs does it *have*”. I’m getting ready to put Nexus gear into production over the next few months, and I’m not looking forward to the ride. So what’s this got to do with trust? I expect my networking vendor to provide me with a bulletproof choice, especially for my data center gear. I should be able to pick what features I need and punt the rest to reduce my exposure to the bad programming practices that are endemic in software development. For the most part, I can’t. Therefore, I don’t look at code upgrades with excitement; I look at them with fear and even dread. What’s to trust?
To trust my networking vendor, to genuinely view them as a partner that can help my business to succeed, I need their products and people to be trustworthy. In Cisco’s case, I don’t have that level of confidence anymore, not considering the business and product set as an aggregate. An even larger question is begged here, which is this: if I pay dearly both in capex and opex to buy stuff that says “Cisco” on the pretty bezel, but I can’t count on it to deliver what I expect of it, then what’s the point of buying it?
Cisco is not the only vendor at fault here. HP, Symantec, Microsoft, and others are all as guilty of one or more of these sins in my very recent personal experience. As businesses, we’ve been trained to accept inferior IT products. Overpriced gear, complicated licensing schemes, and buggy code exacerbated by an apathetic and alienating technical support process is the new norm. And yet, despite these experiences, we keep buying this stuff. Why? It speaks to a certain lunacy…a kind of mental illness gripping our campuses and data centers with brand inertia.
There’s got to be a better way for the enterprise. I’ll contemplate how we can break away from brand inertia in future posts.