The networking industry has had a bumper crop of startup companies including a few unicorns, new and novel solutions, and fresh standards-driven tech in the last decade. There’s been enough churn that you’d think the landscape would be unrecognizable from what it was ten years back. And yet, a dominant vendor supplying networks to enterprises remains Cisco.
Data networking folks sometimes wonder why Cisco remains such a dominant force after all these years. With all the churn in the industry, with all the fancy new products, companies and approaches, with the cloud changing how computing is done, and with software eating the world, there are many more options than Cisco to meet networking needs. Of course, Cisco has always had competition. Cisco’s never gotten 100% of the pie, but, depending on market segment, there’s rarely been a second juggernaut in the enterprise networking space. The choice has typically been between Cisco and everyone else.
But in 2021, the networking market is increasingly fragmented with more startups than I’ve even heard of chasing after slivers of the diverse networking pie. Sure, that impacts Cisco. Still, Cisco tends to dominate, even if their share isn’t quite what it was depending on which market you analyze. Holding a large market share is the situation despite strong competitors with robust networking solutions up and down the stack. If you consider Cisco’s networking portfolio of switches, routers, firewalls, network operating systems, management tools, sundry software products, cloud connectivity, wireless and so on, the competition offers valid alternatives any business could seriously consider. In fact, I could argue that Cisco’s competitors often offer products that beat the equivalent Cisco solution in some way. Price. Features. Usability. Ecosystem. Licensing. Code quality.
You’d think that as the networking market continues to change and fragment, Cisco’s pivotal importance as a networking vendor might be fading significantly. And while perhaps Cisco’s glory days of total domination are past, Cisco is anything but fading away. What’s going on here?
Does New Vendor Equal New Tech?
Let’s think about what happens when a business does not stick with their incumbent networking vendor. Case in point, I have worked with companies that have partially or entirely shifted away from Cisco as their networking supplier. Is changing networking vendors adopting new technology, and therefore fraught with risk? If I change from Cisco to Arista for data center switching, or to Aruba for my wireless, or to Juniper for my edge routing, or whoever and go all-in on their ecosystem, is that change really as risky as Cisco’s continuing dominance implies?
My experience is that no…it isn’t.
Why isn’t such a seemingly radical change all that risky? Because all enterprise networking stacks are based on a common set of technologies.
- Ethernet & wifi for local transport.
- IP for global transport.
- Interior gateway routing protocols–primarily OSPF–for scalable, self-healing network topologies.
- BGP for exterior network connectivity.
- Tunnel overlays–including MPLS–connecting network islands together securely across shared (insecure) wide area networks.
Every networking vendor connecting your enterprise is baking a cake made of some or all of these fundamental ingredients. There is plenty of variation in just how the batter is mixed and the cake is baked. Sometimes you’re getting a no-frills chocolate cake. Sometimes the cake has layers with fancy frosting and sprinkles on top. But it’s still just a cake.
Every network engineer should know these technologies well enough to figure out any networking vendor’s solution. Even in the non-standards based world of SD-WAN (a centrally managed tunnel overlay), the solutions are similar enough vendor to vendor to look familiar once you’ve worked with one of them. From this perspective, changing a networking vendor is not adopting a new technology. Not really. Therefore, making a change to a new networking vendor is not as risky as it might seem at first.
Asking “Who’s The Vendor?” Is The Wrong Question
When it comes to new networking tech, what should a business take into consideration instead of asking, “Who’s the vendor?” To me, the correct business perspective is one of risk management.
- Internal support. Can an IT team make the thing work to deliver whatever the business bought it for? While the incumbent vendor might be familiar and therefore comfortable, that doesn’t mean a different vendor is unsupportable.
- Supply chain. Can a product be delivered when and where a business needs it? In the COVID era, it seems that almost no one can deliver any hardware in a timely fashion, so think of this from a post-COVID perspective assuming lead times go back to pre-pandemic levels eventually.
- Interoperability. Does the product work well enough with other technology the business depends upon? As IT stack automation grows and public cloud services are integrated into the whole, networking services must fit into this scheme.
- Longevity. Will the vendor be around long enough to support the product for its projected business lifecycle? This is difficult to predict with startup technology vendors, especially if their product’s use case is narrow or with a small addressable market.
Cisco, as the incumbent networking vendor at a large number of enterprises, can usually answer those four questions satisfactorily. In fairness, it’s disingenuous to cite Cisco as a whole, in that Cisco is a conglomerate of business units offering a myriad of product lines, each aimed at different markets. But as a whole, it’s still fair to say that Cisco performs adequately across most of their product lines for most of their customers such that sticking with them seems de-risked. I’ve had those conversations with enough IT managers to understand the thought pattern. But this thought pattern errs by assuming that changing networking vendors would be riskier than not changing. Perhaps short-term, minor risk is created due to operational changes required. But on balance, consider that a business takes on the long-term risk of opportunity cost when choosing to stay with an incumbent vendor. Sticking with an incumbent is not only a choice to stay as-is, but also a rejection of other competitive vendors and products.
But You Said It Was Just A Cake
When choosing networking technology for a business, yes, the fundamental ingredients making up a solution are the same. However, there are differentiators vendor to vendor and solution to solution–differentiators that matter, many of them related to smooth interoperability with the rest of your IT stack. This especially matters as you integrate public cloud into your computing architecture. To stick with the cake metaphor, not all cakes are the same.
Again, this is my point. Don’t reject a networking vendor that might have an outstanding solution for your business just because they aren’t Cisco. If you’re a network engineer, using non-Cisco gear isn’t as hard as you think it is–some training your company will definitely provide 😬 and a week of lab work, and you’ll have most of it. If you’re a business owner, you’re sacrificing business options on the altar of risk management by sticking with a familiar incumbent, but you’re managing risks that don’t exist they way you think they do.
Business owners, CIOs, CTOs, and IT managers, one of the oddest arguments I’ve heard for sticking with an incumbent vendor is that your IT team knows the vendor’s interface, as if that knowledge were encoded into their DNA at birth. They had to learn what they know at some point, and they can do that again if you support them properly. Don’t limit opportunities by marrying your business to a vendor-specific way of delivering a network.
In modern IT, knowing a UI is fading in importance due to automation. Invest in your business by training your IT team on new products as they are adopted. Don’t cut training line items, as that makes it harder for your time-poor team to deliver the value you’re expecting from new networking technology. Training is an accelerator that reduces ROI time, not a cost that increases ROI time.
Thoughts on this piece? If you have a different perspective, we should get our microphones together and record a podcast. My Twitter DMs are currently open @ecbanks, or find me on the free Packet Pushers Slack community.