For years network engineers have built lucrative careers upon their wizardly knowledge of things like network protocols, hardware specifications, and the Cisco command line interface (CLI). These skills are still essential to network engineering, but they are emblematic of a highly manual, box-by-box era of network engineering and operations. Today’s enterprises need agile, programmatic networks that leverage software, automation, and more
Thus, it’s notable that Cisco, the world’s leading network hardware vendor, was all about software rather than hardware this week at its annual user conference, Cisco Live Orlando. CEO Chuck Robbins and David Goeckeler, general manager of the networking and security business, used their Cisco Live keynote presentations to demonstrate advances in cloud and container integration, network analytics, network programmability, and software developer communities.
Robbins noted that sales of the new big-iron Catalyst 9000 switches are brisk so far, but he pivoted quickly to Cisco’s partnership with Google Cloud Platform, inviting Google Cloud CEO Diane Green on stage, promising a fall availability of the Cisco Container Program, the first offering from the Google partnership.
Robbins and Goeckeler also debuted the DNA Center Platform concept. DNA Center is the foundation of Cisco’s intent-based networking strategy, a concept that emphasizes the abstraction of manual networking tasks by providing engineers with intuitive tools for building and operating networks via business logic rather than CLI expertise. DNA Center is a console interface where network engineers can use point-and-click workflows express business logic. DNA Center translates that business logic into network engineering and operational workflows. Rather than manually program each device, engineers can make changes across the entire network from DNA Center.
The new DNA Center Platform consists of a new set of open APIs, software development kits (SDKs), and adapters that allow network engineers, developers, partners and system integrators to integrate with and program DNA Center in countless ways. Goeckeler’s keynote highlighted how partners have used the APIs, SDKs and adapters to fully automate closed loop operations on DNA Center via programmatic integrations with IT service management systems and security and network monitoring tools.
Goeckeler also steered his keynote through demonstrations of network assurance engines for Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) and DNA Center, Cisco’s flagship data center and enterprise networking platforms. Each assurance engine analyzes streaming telemetry from network devices to validate network intent and assure the health and performance of network infrastructure. He also invited Susie Wee, vice president and CTO of DevNet, to take a victory lap on stage. Through her leadership, Cisco now has 500,000 registered members on DevNet, its online developer community. Cisco’s goal was to create a critical mass of developers in DevNet so that they would be ready to take advantage of network programmability as it became available from Cisco. The DNA Center Platform represents a huge opportunity for Cisco to leverage this community, which has an average of 70,000 active users every month.
Cisco had precious little to say about new hardware at Cisco Live. Twenty years ago, customers would have been shocked and disappointed by such news. Maybe some of them still were. But the future of networking is about software, programmability, analytics, and automation. Hardware isn’t going away, but it’s only the foundation of a broader value chain these days.
As one Cisco customer told me at the show, network engineers need to shift their mindset when designing and operating the network. They must resist their instinct to touch each box, to dive into CLI, and spend days or weeks manually configuring each device. Instead, they need to think about the network as a system to be programmed via software and automation. Cisco has the right idea. Now it needs to execute on that vision. Cisco is aggressively shifting toward a software business model, and it’s made great strides. But Cisco has always been about hardware, and some habits are hard to break.