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Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — (Nasdaq: CSCO) is diving deeper into applications territory, as the company today announced its latest "convergence" plan -- this time, moving more enterprise applications onto the network. To do this, though, Cisco may have to come dangerously close to tangling with its applications partners.

Dubbed the Service Oriented Network Architecture (SONA), the concept involves tying together many of an enterprise's IT functions using the network as a common element. Cisco debuted the idea Tuesday morning at its annual analyst conference.

"We take a lot of the functions that used to exist in the applications or in the middleware and we pull them into the network," CEO John Chambers said. The network "becomes a platform -- it will deliver the applications to the users."

In the case of security, this would mean the network checks PCs for viruses before giving them network access. For mobility, the network would be able to deliver any kind of application to any device.

Cisco sees this as a logical extension of what's been happening in IP networks, as some applications such as firewalls are already being absorbed into IP infrastructure. Chief development officer Charles Giancarlo pointed to SSL acceleration as an example: "Today, you just have to do it, and if it's sucking up MIPS on that server... you'd like to offload it to the network."

With its applications focus, SONA would seem to tread on the toes of Cisco partners such as IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT). But Cisco insists that's not the case.

Cisco says it won't compete with its partners' business applications, which connect people to computers. Rather, Cisco wants to provide "collaborative" enterprise applications such as IP voice and video -- applications that connect people to each other, Giancarlo said: "There's no question that the discussion is around a lot of the same benefits to the customer, and that's where some of the nervousness comes in." Of course, there's still room for conflict in collaborative applications. "There may be a partner or so that's interested in that space," Giancarlo concedes. "Being a new space, it's a free space."

Acronym fun
The key to SONA will be "application networking services," a technology that comes in two pieces. One is applications delivery -- functions such as acceleration, compression, and load balancing, all necessary for getting applications out to remote branch offices or consumers.

The other is Application Oriented Networking (AON), introduced in June, which allows the network (ATN) to read and interpret (R&I) the messages it transmits. (See Cisco Speaks Applications.) Among other things, AON can be a "universal translator" to let otherwise unrelated applications interact, said Giancarlo. For example, an enterprise could change applications without having to worry about uprooting an enterprise-wide middleware package, he said.

In announcing SONA today, Cisco declared application networking services as the eighth of its "advanced technologies," categories that Cisco believes can be $1 billion-a-year businesses where it can hold No. 1 or 2 market share. It's easily the most vague of the group, compared with optical networking, home networking, wireless, security, storage networking, IP telephony, and the recently announced LinkSys One platform for small business. (See Linksys Targets SMBs.)

On the business side, Cisco is pitching SONA for its "network multiplier effect," a kind of bundled-purchase savings. An IT department's expenses would normally continue growing as the business grows. Cisco argues that by assigning some IT pieces to the network, the department saves money by being able to share resources through the network.

Cisco is offering itself as an example of all this. Giancarlo pointed to the virtualization of storage within the company: "We are getting almost four times as much utilization of our disk capacity than before virtualization, because now we can use disk capacity that is in any SAN in any of our data centers."

In a sense, SONA represents Cisco's entry into Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), a hot topic that's tackled differently by different equipment vendors. An SOA allows different services to interact; Cisco is saying AON -- and therefore, SONA -- can simplify this process by providing one architecture that performs the interaction automatically.

One lingering question is how well SONA would work in a multivendor network, as the idea seems to be best tailored for an all-Cisco architecture. One analyst requesting anonymity wondered whether Cisco's plan might backfire in the long run, as customers grow weary (or wary -- or both) of having to send all their critical applications through Cisco.

SONA is the enterprise counterpart to the IP Next-Generation Network (NGN) that Cisco is pitching to service providers. Both acronyms represent Cisco's way of creating an intelligent network for a particular customer segment. "It is somewhat different for each of our customer segments," said Giancarlo.

SONA also happens to be the replacement for the Architecture for Voice, Video, and Integrated Data (Avvid) and is the latest in a string of convergence-related programs Cisco has offered during the past decade.

Money Matters
Of course, with plenty of Wall Street analysts in the room, Chambers and Giancarlo did their best to pitch Cisco as a growth company. It's a key point for investors, as the company's stock has been on a slow decline for the past two years.

Giancarlo tried to show how Cisco's recent moves provide headroom. Between the pending acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta Inc. (NYSE: SFA) and the addition of application networking services, Cisco's total available market should be $133 billion in 2009, he said, representing 12 percent annual growth from Cisco's 2005 total available market of 2005. (See Cisco to Acquire Scientific-Atlanta and Sci-Atlanta: Cisco's IPTV Lifeline?)

Cisco has only a 26 percent share of that total available market, and it's that fact that gives the company room to meet its goal of 10 to 15 percent annual growth, he said.

Chambers also reiterated Cisco's aim to help with "business transformation," teaching customers how to better wield the network to improve productivity and save money. This was a key part of his talk at last year's conference, and he repeated that certain customers -- including the Big Three U.S. auto makers -- have been asking Cisco for it. (See Cisco Rolls Out Roadmaps.)

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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krbabu 12/5/2012 | 2:51:40 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA The article writes:
"One lingering question is how well SONA would work in a multivendor network, as the idea seems to be best tailored for an all-Cisco architecture. One analyst requesting anonymity wondered whether Cisco's plan might backfire in the long run, as customers grow weary (or wary -- or both) of having to send all their critical applications through Cisco."
The fact is that greater intelligence needs to get into the network - Cisco or no Cisco. Cisco is merely taking the lead. Most of the application-level interaction tends to be XML-driven so that different vendors are able to provide their pluggable components; of course, interoperability problems can still exist because of nuances of semantics. After all, XML schmas, and even Relax NG, tend to focus on message syntax and can fall short when it comes to exact meanings.
In summary, this is not a case of Microsoft-like dominance.
alchemy 12/5/2012 | 2:51:38 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA I'm scratching my head here since this is such a big shift for Cisco. The Cisco mantra since the dawn of time has been "thin core, smart endpoint". ... a completely reasonable point of view for a router company.

The metaphor I think of is the dumb TTY/Mainframe vs PC/Workstation war. If you look at market cap, I think it's clear who won that war. There are still applications that work best when done on a mainframe and you can earn a good living at it but most enterprise work is clearly being done down on the PC.

krbabu writes:

Most of the application-level interaction tends to be XML-driven so that different vendors are able to provide their pluggable components; of course, interoperability problems can still exist because of nuances of semantics. After all, XML schmas, and even Relax NG, tend to focus on message syntax and can fall short when it comes to exact meanings.


Interoperability problems exist at the application level not because of nuances of semantics but because of the sheer complexity of the interfaces. If you look at the suite of interfaces and protocols run by a Cisco router, most of them are pretty darn'd simple. I'm not sure I'd look to Cisco to be the driving force in solving the complexity problem in application interfaces since it's so far from their core competence. They certainly have enough 200 IQ people to take a shot at it. We'll see what they come up with that's useful in a few years.
Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 2:51:34 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA alchemy writes:

I'm scratching my head here since this is such a big shift for Cisco. The Cisco mantra since the dawn of time has been "thin core, smart endpoint". ... a completely reasonable point of view for a router company.

Yes, excellent point. Cisco is now saying that some functions become so ubiquitous that you want them to exist deeper in the network, so that you're freeing up edge-device compute cycles (i'm using "edge device" incorrectly here, to include servers).

So the edges would still be smart, but the "network" (nebulously defined) would get smarter too. I think.

How does that sound to folks? Good idea? Bad idea? Marketing fluff?
Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 2:51:34 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA Cisco's corrected me on one point -- they've now got nine advanced technologies, not eight.

The one I missed is Scientific-Atlanta and video, which will become AT #8 when the acquisition closes.

Which is kind of cheating, isn't it? You're talking about a business that's already $1 billion, and putting it in the stack of "potential" billion-dollar businesses ....

Trivial, I know. grumble grumble
voyce_overipee 12/5/2012 | 2:51:33 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA And they're still fighting that point internally all the time. Their enterprise group wants intelligence to be in the enterprise boxes, the service provider group wants some intelligence in the network, but only enough not to break the routers, and their cisco-fellow type people keep saying put it in the PC and leave the network dumb.

The truth is in the middle - if cisco has the box or feature then that's the right place for it. Thats what any smart company would do and cisco aint dumb.
voyce_overipee 12/5/2012 | 2:51:32 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA The metaphor I think of is the dumb TTY/Mainframe vs PC/Workstation war. If you look at market cap, I think it's clear who won that war.

But the trick is figuring out how much to where. The network isn't really dumb. DNS, web servers, chat rooms, email servers, etc. are all services derived from some network intelligence (network from the PC's perspective). Anything that needs shared/common directories and storage usually needs some network-based intelligence. if by network you mean not on your local pc.
Sisyphus 12/5/2012 | 2:51:30 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA The definition of "network intelligence" varies depending on who one talk to, it is a matter of perception. Let's remember that all the traditional Intelligent Network based on SS7 did was to be more creative with call end points - and awesome as the phone infrastructure is, if running SS7 defines an intelligent network, then the myriad of protocols in the network these days makes it a hyper-genius!

I think it is obvious that SPs stand to gain a lot from having a more "intelligent" network infrastructure that allows them to flexibly roll out value add services, which ultimately is what this is about. And the more application oriented the network function becomes, the higher the chance that it is implemented on a standard (yet always increasingly powerful) server architecture that resides somewhere in the "network" aka the service provider's infratructure. Networking vendors would be silly not to benefit from the middleware action that's certain to ensue and stick to a "we're a router and IP company" mentality.
ruready 12/5/2012 | 2:51:29 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA Ah.... Intelligence in the network. Let history repeat itself.
Let me put on my bell head. The intelligence in the phone network is in SS7 and the relatively few (compared to data) switches in the network. Upgrades, while difficult, were centralized and comparatively straight forward to roll out.

I can't imagine having to upgrade switches/ routers at multiple points in the network. Talk about handing the keys to the hen house to the fox...

Appliances at the endpoint make a world of sense. If the appliance doesn't work, rip it out of the network and move on.
voyce_overipee 12/5/2012 | 2:51:28 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA Appliances at the endpoint make a world of sense. If the appliance doesn't work, rip it out of the network and move on.

i think there's confusion on this message board around what "network" means for this topic. i agree with you putting application intelligence in routers is dumb. but putting it on appliances on the network other than my PC is still putting intelligence in the network from my PC's perspective. That's what IMS does, sorta.

Just like this message board itself, there is some intelligence in my PC, but the LR web server (the "network" to me) is doing half of the heavy lifting. In some ways we've come half way to hainvg mainframes and dumb terminals, as our web browsers are very fancy terminals, but with some local storage and intelligence too. That lets LR only have to upgrade their webserver/content when they want to add features and not upgrade everyone's PC, just like IMS wants some of the services handled by network-attached servers and only upgrade/manage them, with half-smart phones.
mr zippy 12/5/2012 | 2:51:28 AM
re: Cisco Everywhere: Meet SONA Recommended for the newbies or rather "olbies" at Cisco. Applications in the network isn't smart.

"RISE OF THE STUPID NETWORK"
http://www.isen.com/stupid.htm...

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