Keynotes at big vendor conferences tend to focus on vision and aspiration. They outline the company’s overall strategy and direction, emphasize strengths and opportunities, and assure attendees (and investors) that everything is swell.
Chuck Robbins’ keynote at Cisco Live US did all those things. But among the visions and aspirations, I inferred three unspoken messages that Robbins and Cisco wanted to communicate. They are:
- Come with me if you want to live
- Cisco is still relevant
- Cisco hears your complaints
Let’s look at each one.
1. Come With Me If You Want To Live*
Robbins preached chapter and verse from IT Fears And Challenges, which is every vendor’s favorite book of the tech sales bible. Those fears and challenges are:
- Complex regulations
- Economic shifts
- Exploding growth in devices and traffic (for instance, Robbins said 300 million more people got smartphones last year, and that 27 billion new machine-to-machine connections will be added over the next 5 years)
- Multicloud and mobile environments that scatter apps and data everywhere
- Business leaders that want better outcomes faster
- Security (more threats, greater attack surface)
After reciting this litany, Robbins declared that the old (or perhaps current) way of building networks, in which traffic flows back to a central data center where policies and security controls are applied, isn’t feasible in today’s multicloud and mobile-driven world.
In other words, you’re going to need to transform your network. And it just so happens that Cisco has a set of products to help you, including SD-Access, DNA Center, and the Catalyst 9000 line. Convenient, right?
So unspoken message number 1 is: your old network is going to be hopelessly overwhelmed. You need a new network, and you need a wise and helpful vendor to help you build it. Whether that vendor should be Cisco or someone else is up for debate, but that’s the message I heard.
2. Cisco Is Still Relevant
Cisco’s dominance is being challenged on multiple fronts. For instance, while Cisco still holds the lion’s share of the Ethernet market, the latest numbers from IDC show that Cisco’s market share declined 5.5% since 2016, while competitors such as Huawei and Arista are growing.
In network virtualization, VMware has emerged as a tough competitor with NSX. VMware is also challenging Cisco in SD-WAN via VMware’s VeloCloud acquisition, as well as in hybrid cloud.
Web-scale companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google are building a robust whitebox ecosystem of low-cost, commodity hardware and disaggregated network OSs, sapping potential revenue from Cisco. At the same time, startups such as Cumulus Networks are making whitebox feasible for the enterprise.
And telcos and service providers are moving aggressively to combine open source software, whitebox hardware, and virtual network services that run on x86 servers, making them less reliant on incumbent vendors such as Cisco.
Amidst all this competitive pressure and innovation, Cisco needs to assert its relevance both to customers and investors.
One way Robbins did this in his keynote was to remind the audience of just how central the network (and by association Cisco) is to the cloud, to mobile, and to IoT.
Robbins also touted the company’s partnership with Google Cloud, including bringing Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene onstage to talk about how, via Cisco’s support for Kubernetes, customers can build an app once and then run it on premises or in Google Cloud.
Robbins also touted the uptake of Cisco’s Catalyst 9000 switch family. He cited over 5,800 customers and called it “the fastest ramping product in the history of Cisco.”
Robbins also specifically called out Cisco’s Encrypted Traffic Analysis as a sign of innovation and competitive differentiation (as did other executives throughout the day in separate press briefings).
Using traffic pattern analysis, examining cipher suites, and adding a dash of machine learning, Cisco says it can infer, to a high degree of certainty, whether encrypted traffic is malicious.
So unspoken message number 2 is that Cisco isn’t sitting still while the world changes around it; the company is investing in new ideas and new technologies to solve customer problems.
You’ll also hear similar messaging from vendors such as VMware and Juniper, both of whom have also latched on to a similar strategy as Cisco: leverage automation to enable scalability, use microsegmentation to apply the correct policy and security controls to workloads regardless of where they reside, use telemetry and analytics for performance monitoring and troubleshooting.
The challenge for customers is to figure out which vendors have the right products and tools to implement this strategy.
3. Cisco Hears Your Complaints
Robbins said today’s organizations have to create “meaningful and robust experiences” for customers and partners.
“You want your customer to be so satisfied with your experience that they would never go anywhere else,” he said.
That imperative also applies to Cisco. The company has taken criticism for issues such as product complexity, aggressive sales tactics, and poor software quality.
From the keynote stage, Robbins told the audience that Cisco had recently created a new executive position, the Chief Customer Experience Officer.
He said this executive’s role is to “…care about you and your experience with our technology from the moment you buy it to the moment you retire it. This team exists to make sure you have the best possible experience with our technology.”
I’m curious how much power or influence this executive will have to effect meaningful change; it could be just a fig leaf. But the fact that Robbins called it out specifically on the keynote stage may indicate that the company aims to take such criticisms seriously. That was message number 3.
*Don’t Forget The Wonder
Robbins’ overarching keynote theme was “Chaos and Wonder.” As I mentioned above, Robbins enumerated the chaos that IT professionals face, which is a common vendor tactic to stoke a potential buyer’s anxiety.
However, to his credit, Robbins didn’t ignore the “Wonder” element of his theme. In fact, I think he did a commendable job reminding the audience (and jaded tech reporters) that connectivity, both technological and human, allows us to accomplish some pretty remarkable things in fields such as education, medicine, disaster response, and helping people overcome disabilities.
Lots of tech companies talk about “changing the world,” but we’ve come to recognize this phrase for what it is: hollow rhetoric that masks rapacious self-interest.
Instead, by speaking of “wonder”, Robbins reminded us that technology can still delight, be playful, and benefit human society. That’s a refreshing message.