Cisco Speaks Applications
AON -- which is first being implemented on blades for enterprise and branch-office routers -- is getting its formal debut today in Las Vegas, where Cisco is hosting its annual user conference.
Most sources have described AON as an XML-switching technology, but really the idea is to work with the language of any enterprise applications. AON is a Layer 7 technology that examines entire messages rather than digging into Internet Protocol (IP) packets. It could be used for things like XML routing -- but AON's real power lies in the potential of linking the information contained in different applications' messages.
The idea is to "embed a native understanding of messages into the network," says Stephen Cho, senior director of product management for Cisco's newly created AON business unit (see Cisco Gets Application-Oriented).
"Messages" refers not to IM chats, but to the messages that applications send around the network. By interpreting messages from multiple applications, AON could give enterprises greater visibility into -- and control over -- their IT processes, allowing them to follow transactions and purchase-orders in real time, for example.
Eventually, AON could have implications on the telecom side, too, allowing carriers to offer this kind of IT visibility as a managed service.
"It is a pretty exciting way of looking at what the network can do for you," says Caroline Chappell, an independent analyst and author of a recent Light Reading Insider report on service delivery platforms (SDPs).
Such tricks have always been possible, but it takes software -- either purchased from outside or spun inhouse -- and "a lot of IT opex," Cho says.
That approach has its limits, because enterprise software is a messy business, with proprietary protocols all over the place. That's true even in the face of standards such as XML. "XML is one of those languages that you can make any way you want. Every enterprise uses it slightly differently, and every application uses it slightly differently," Chappell says. "How SAP defines a purchase order is different from how JD Edwards defines a purchase order."
Friends and enemies
Thus, in order to make AON into a universal translator for enterprise dialects, Cisco has to set up lots and lots of partnerships among application vendors, to make AON "aware" of their software. Several such alliances were announced today from applications vendors including IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and SAP.
Some of those partners will be competitors as well, because AON brings Cisco into a realm occupied by enterprise middleware. The fact that enterprise application integration vendor Tibco Software Inc. (Nasdaq: TIBX) participated in Cisco's AON launch shows that there are ways middleware and AON can work together. That's because the scope of the problem being attacked is so large.
But other notable middleware vendors such as BEA Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BEAS) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) haven't yet pledged peaceful coexistence with AON. "It seems to me that [AON] is actually making the network into one big middleware channel. What does this mean for the middleware companies? I suppose it could supplant them," Chappell says.
"In some respects, [Cisco is] partnering with guys in the middleware space. In some ways, it's going to be seen like competition," says Sandra Rogers, an analyst with IDC. "I think Cisco realizes it's going to be a balancing act."
In the end, Cisco could be setting the stage for another debate over where intelligence should reside -- whether it should be more in the network or in software. "What an enterprise will have to think about is: Where is [a network] policy defined, and where is that policy enforced?" Rogers says.
On the hardware side, competition could come from the XML acceleration camp, where vendors like DataPower Technology Inc. and Solace Systems Inc. provide boxes to handle XML and other languages (see Telecom Startups Play in XML).
Activity in this area reaches down to the chip level, where startups such as Xambala, and possibly Sonoa Systems Inc., are developing language-processing devices (see Raj Singh Resurfaces).
Cisco did take advantage of some off-the-shelf hardware to create AON but won't divulge details; Cho wouldn't confirm scuttlebutt that AON includes an XML acceleration chip from Tarari Inc.
Given its scope, it's not surprising that AON is a large business unit. Cho says the AON headcount is "a three-digit number" that includes software developers and a dedicated sales team.
Analysts are presuming AON will become the seventh of Cisco's "advanced technologies," the buzzword for new product areas expected to reach $1 billion in annual sales. The first six advanced technologies are wireless, optical, home networking, storage networking, IP telephony, and security -- and Cisco officials have noted that six more entries are under consideration.
AON seems special, though. It could represent Cisco's next phase of life as the company puts more emphasis on services and consulting rather than hardware and software. In fact, Cisco will provide implementation help for AON customers, a sign of the newfound services emphasis that CEO John Chambers highlighted last fall.
Back then, Chambers told analysts the benefits of networking technologies can't be realized unless internal business processes are changed as well -- a fact that's prompted Cisco into coaching customers through those changes. That helps Cisco sell customers on esoteric technology and gives the company a weapon to keep driving revenues as low-margin competition from Asia heats up (see Cisco Rolls Out Roadmaps).
AON seems to fit right into that philosophy. The technology could transform routers, under threat of becoming commodity items in the long run, back into vital cogs of the network. At the same time, Cisco would become a hub of the applications world, creating new high-end markets for its wares.
On the outside, the AON products aren't so glamorous. AON is first being introduced as blades for the 2700, 2800, 3700, and 3800 routers, plus a blade for the Catalyst 6500 switch. The blades are sampling to select customers, with general availability due "in a few months," according to Cisco officials at today's press conference. A standalone AON appliance should debut later this year, Cho says.
Telecom routers will get their AON in time, Cho says. "We will be looking to deploy the AON capability across the portfolio of products," he says, although he's not naming specific product numbers. Edge routers are more likely candidates for AON than core routers, though, as core routers might need to recognize message traffic but wouldn't do much processing of that traffic, he says.
But AON doesn't replace IP routing, Cho stresses. "What is already going on in the enterprise is IP routing as well as message routing. We're simply sedimenting some part of that environment into the network."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading