Q&A: Cisco's Ken Boal and Jason Brouwers – We're now a software and security company

Q&A: Cisco's Ken Boal and Jason Brouwers – We're now a software and security company

Cisco has changed its focus from routers and switches to software and security. How has that changed the company under the new CEO?

Cisco vice president of ANZ, Ken Boal

Cisco vice president of ANZ, Ken Boal

After a big year for the networking giant, Cisco has seen long standing CEO and industry legend John Chambers step down, and the company focus on its Intercloud offerings, security and software, via its application of Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Cisco ACI (Application Centric Interface).

ARN sat down with Cisco A/NZ’s vice president, Ken Boal ,and its director of the partner business group, Jason Brouwers, to discuss the company’s new direction.

Allan Swann (AS): How is Australia batting in terms of its place inside the Cisco global empire?

Ken Boal (KB): Cisco A/NZ has always batted very well in terms of how its viewed within the global empire. We’ve used our recent Woolies and DiData rollouts as case studies overseas, for example.

Jason Brouwers (JB): We always ask to be front and centre, to be first on a lot of things. Australia was first with ACI, first with Cloud, we are already very strong with IoT.

KB: What's good for our partners is that we have a very healthy mix – we aren't reliant on one product category. We’ve got a great portfolio and our partners are free to play and innovate in multiple areas – it brings a breadth to our capability locally that we might not see in a Cisco’s other countries.

In a networking world that’s seeing a lot white label offerings and open source technologies – why would customers and partners pay a bit more and go with Cisco?

KB: There's no shortage of competition for us across different categories, the competition just takes different forms. If it’s not the traditional competitors, there’s always a new start up with an innovative or disruptive approach.

In terms of the growth of the white label space, we haven’t seen that a lot in Australia. We find that for our partners, it doesn’t really solve their problems. If anything, it creates more problems.

They don’t want to be mucking around with science projects, building this stuff themselves. It might be okay for a Facebook to go and do that, but for an Australian enterprise or a retailer to be mucking around with white-box and opensource technologies that aren’t proven – its just too high risk for them. They really want to just take it off the shelf.

Speaking of one stop shop and converged solutions, Cisco has its fingers in IBM’s Versastack, with Nimble and VMware on Smartstack, Netapp with Flexpod and so on. How well are those projects working for you?

JB: The converged infrastructure story is a huge one for us. It’s popular because its a validated design, ready to go. Yes, there will always be times when you need a bespoke solution for specific requirements, but these work well.

Are you concerned that these hybrid ‘Cloud-in-a-box’ solutions are cutting out the channel, specifically the systems integrators role? Do you get any push back there?

KB: I’d say none at all. Our partners and customers are happy to produce faster outcomes with the converged infrastructure. It’s more profitable, and its lower risk for partners. The real differentiator, for the partners, is the over the top stuff.

We have seen examples of where the partners have tried to stick this stuff together themselves, and it's just too difficult and messy. These solutions are tried and tested, and off the shelf. They know if there are any issues there is a single large company they can go back to get it fixed or replaced easily.

We’re focusing on getting the hardware and the software to work better together. All the different bits inside the datacentre working better together, whether it’s the firewalls the load balancers, the hypervisor, the storage, whatever. This is where our implementation of SDN, ACI, comes in. It makes everything work better together – not just in the bundles and the stacks, but the individual elements across the board.

That’s the problem customers from Woolworths’ of the world, down to the SMBs, all have. We want to simplify how our partners and customers consume our products.

There has been a lot of talk about the commoditisation of the physical network, if your partners are providing the OTT, what keeps Cisco relevant in the piece?

KB: It's something that we’ve handled pretty well over the years. Look if we don’t drive innovation and new capabilities into our network then we deserve to be commoditised.

JB: That play around having the network as a sensor is a very powerful message. Cisco as a full security play, rather than just point security products. No other security vendor can match that.

The good news is, with the network as a sensor - as an enforcer – it becomes a true security weapon.

Read more: Netgear launches its first Cloud-based IT service platform

That’s an example of the work we’re putting into the network to make it smarter – that avoids commoditisation. The other vendors can go down the path of the network being dumb pipes - that’s not our model.

The feedback from partners and customers is that they value that intelligence. And we’re holding out, if not growing our market share, in most of the network categories.

So how does that work when you partner with vendors like Checkpoint, whom you compete with in the security space? Or Palo Alto and FireEye?

KB: We’re absolutely competitors to those guys, but we have to work in an open environment with our customers. Yes, we’d prefer our customers worked with us in an end-to-end architecture - Cisco for the firewall, intrusion prevention, gateways, emails, the Web filtering… all these pieces work together as an architecture. That’s what we will always advocate for.

But some customers have made investment decisions to go with other security elements, so we have to make that work. So we will open up our network and, where ACI, as it is applied to the network, will help to automate some of those complexities in that multi-vendor environment.

Cisco will always have a bit of secret sauce we can provide for our end-to-end solutions, and its our job to prove the value in that secret sauce.

Security has been a very competitive area, and for A/NZ that’s really our number one focus at the moment. Because that’s the big pain point for the boardrooms, there's a lot of uncertainty and fear, and if we don’t address it as an industry then you can forget the digital era of business.

So in a very short time frame you’ve gone from being a networking company to software and security focused company. That’s a huge cultural change. How are your partners dealing with that?

JB: It’s a great story for us actually. Partners are looking at their customers and thinking – how can we refresh these networks? These options give the channel a new conversation to take back to that install base to push.

If you can approach a customer, and prove to them that their infrastructure is a security risk, and their business as a whole is a security risk, then we’ve made it easier for our partners to have that ‘in’ conversation with their customers.

Well how has the change been for you two personally?

KB: This industry isn't for the fainthearted, you’re always learning and that’s the beauty of it.

Remember we’ve always been in security. We’re number one in firewall market share, even when we were known as a switch and router company.

I actually think we’re a good case study for the wider corporate world. We’re a company with a core business, and we moved into what we call ‘market adjacencies’ and added new capabilities. We’ve innovated within our core business, but we’ve also added these new product lines. Now it all works better together. It’s certainly kept us on our toes. We have to keep it all fresh.

Who would’ve thought a few years ago we’d be cooking up solutions with Caterpillar trucks? Now we’re talking about smart lightbulbs that go into smart cities, with smart security cameras, and smart parking. These market adjacencies, yes they put us under a pressure, but it’s a fantastic conversation we’re now able to have.

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Tags NetworkingciscoInternet of ThingsCaterpillarSDNsmart citiesACIKen BoalIoEJason Brouwers



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