When Cisco announced its intent to acquire leading SD-WAN vendor Viptela in May of 2017, the network industry buzzed with conversation. Now, we’re in the quiet purgatory while we wait for regulatory approval. Since the deal hasn’t been finalized yet, neither company can say much about their plans for integration. But it’s clear that a few challenges await Cisco as they consider how to integrate Viptela’s solution into their WAN portfolio.
Cisco has a double-edged problem. First, Viptela’s platform is software-driven and the hardware is cheap. Viptela routers for SD-WAN enabled sites are relatively inexpensive x86 boxes with ethernet ports. Cisco’s ISR 4000 series routers, functionally equivalent from an SD-WAN perspective, cost orders of magnitude more.
Cisco has never sold hardware on the cheap. However, they’ve acquired a solution that’s known to work well on low cost hardware. Existing Viptela customers will ask some hard questions about the need for expensive routers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cisco customers have purchased expensive ISR 4000 series routers to implement iWAN, Cisco’s legacy SD-WAN offering. Executives who have invested in ISR routers as their go-forward WAN platform will expect a perceived return on their investment. Cisco cannot abandon them.
In light of all of this, what must Cisco do to integrate Viptela into their portfolio?
Integrate the entire solution. Cisco leadership has intimated that Viptela was purchased for the management capabilities. Having worked with Viptela’s platform, this assertion rings hallow. The tight integration of the management plane and control plane make it difficult to imagine how Cisco could separate the vManage console from the vSmart controllers and integrate with DMVPN, BGP, EIGRP, PfR, and AVC. OMP, Viptela’s Overlay Management Protocol, does the hard work of application based routing, policy enforcement and segmentation. Cisco need to integrate OMP and develop a pathway for a new WAN overlay industry standard to foster cross-platform SD-WAN solutions.
Run the vEdge Router on the ISR Platform. While integrating with the ISR routers would not be my first choice, Cisco cannot alienate customers who are growing tired of shorter refresh cycles and early end-of-life woes.
Make a way forward for commodity SD-WAN hardware. Viptela is, at it’s core, a software solution. Cisco must continue down the software path and provide lower cost hardware when the solution warrants it.
Embrace customer-focused culture of Viptela. The SD-WAN clamor of the past few years was driven, in large part, by Cisco’s unwillingness to listen to their customers. They lost sight of the operational realities in the enterprise and took advantage of earned trust. They presumed every new solution must be built on top of a previous one — increasing complexity to the point of unmanageability. Viptela fostered the SD-WAN movement by convincing the industry that ever-increasing complexity in network architecture is not a given.
I have been an unabashed fan of Viptela’s solution and I have high hopes for the technology now in the hands of Cisco. The next 12 months will tell us a great deal about how Cisco will proceed. We’ll also know if their latest foray into the software-defined campus with Network Intuitive is a boom, bust, or something in between. Until then, we’ll be watching and waiting.