Cisco Live: What's the Signal in the AI Noise?

Jun 4, 2024 3:33:33 PM

Cisco Live is happening in Las Vegas this week. It remains one of the biggest annual gatherings of network infrastructure professionals in the world. It is also a venue for Cisco to showcase its latest products and services, and it is a place where Cisco lays out its overall vision to address customer requirements.

This year’s show is all about artificial intelligence (AI). Almost every Cisco product announcement at this show mentions AI in one way or another. During his keynote presentation, CEO Chuck Robbins said Cisco intends to be an enabler of enterprise AI adoption by helping customers build infrastructure to support AI, manage the data that underpins AI development and training, and provide solutions to secure all of it. The message is clear, but are core Cisco customers ready to hear it?

AI is the hot new thing, but the topic almost never comes up in my conversations with network architects and engineers. It doesn’t even come up in my conversations with middle managers, like directors of network engineering. CIOs are the one who are focused on it, because they have mandates coming down from their CEOs. And they are getting ready to move their organizations in that direction. I assume CIOs are the customer personas who are pushing Cisco toward AI. However, the rank-and-file network engineers who are building solutions with Cisco products are focused on other things.

My research shows that AI is only a tertiary driver of network infrastructure and operations strategy today. Tertiary is better than nothing, but AI is not the north star for network engineers. Not yet, at least. Network teams are primarily focused on five initiatives:

  • Hybrid and multi-cloud architecture (Cisco is not marketing a product for this, but its SD-WAN and SASE solutions are capable of supporting this to some extent)
  • Providing security and connectivity for SaaS applications (Cisco SASE solves this)
  • Aligning with DevOps and CI/CD pipelines (The DevNet community is a key piece here, along with a variety of other Cisco products)
  • Integrating into cross-domain IT operations (Cisco's Full-Stack Observability suite addresses this)
  • Zero trust security (Countless Cisco products play here)

These are the projects network teams are engaged with right now.Cisco is positioned to help with nearly all with them. Cisco needs to assure customers that it remains focused on providing solutions for these projects. But I understand Cisco's temptation to take the leap directly into AI. The hype around AI is overwhelming, and it's easy to imagine how all the individual project drivers (cloud, SaaS, DevOps, cross-domain ops, zero trust) underpin a successful AI strategy. AI needs infrastructure, services, developers, visibility, and security. But network engineering teams are not putting that together yet. They have different mandates.

If Cisco wants to lead on AI, it needs to look beyond the CIO’s suite. Network engineers are its core constituency, and those people aren’t with Cisco on its AI vision yet. However, they can get there. Cisco needs to articulate that it remains focused on providing solutions for today’s problems, like cloud networking, zero trust, observability, etc.. At the same time, Cisco can talk about how those solutions are going to prepare network teams to support AI initiatives in the future. Cisco can remind them that AI may not be their priority today, but it will probably shoot to the top of the list over the next two or three years.

In the meantime, customers need to know that Cisco is focused on the things that matter to them. I think it is. For instance, during his keynote Robbins said one of the top demands that customers have for Cisco is to “be a great networking company, please.” It's clear that he hears the concerns of these customers. However, with all the noise about AI, I worry that the customers may become disillusioned. "Cisco wants to be an AI company instead of a networking company," they might say. "This is just like those days when tried to sell a tablet and Flip cameras." 

So, Cisco needs to make sure customers know WHY a networking company should be a leader in AI and how it CAN be a leader in AI without losing its focus on what does best, networking. I see the vision, but many customers do not. 

Shamus McGillicuddy

Written by Shamus McGillicuddy

Shamus is the vice president of research for EMA's network management practice. He has more than twelve years of experience in the IT industry as an analyst and journalist. Prior to joining EMA, Shamus was the news director for TechTarget's networking publications. He led the news team's coverage of all networking topics, from the infrastructure layer to the management layer. He has published hundreds of articles about network technology, and he was a founding editor of TechTarget's website, a leading resource for technical information and news on the software-defined networking industry.

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