Cisco’s Digital Network Architecture (DNA) promises to help companies in their digital transformation journey where new technologies can be used to accelerate business activities and processes to make them more competitive. It’s also a big validation that network analytics is no longer a nice to have but a must have.
Cisco DNA aims to provide a platform that companies can use as the foundation for digital transformation projects. The architecture’s key tenants are virtualization, automation, analytics, a cloud-based service management layer, and open application programming interfaces (APIs). It’s a system that’s “designed for automation.” In other words, Cisco wants to make its products easier to deploy and manage. At the heart of that message is a move away from CLI. Sounds good so far.
We’ve seen this movie before
Part of Cisco’s vision surrounding digital transformation is to make the network more responsive and agile. Its DNA and intent-based networking campaign is Cisco’s most hyped initiative since Borderless Networks in 2011. Remember that?
First unveiled in March 2016, DNA was designed to help engineers, developers, and partners build and manage what Cisco calls “digital-ready networks.”
These groups are now struggling to understand how the high-level marketing messages actually translate into a coherent solution that delivers the value and promise of Cisco’s vision.
Enterprise networkers have become wise to these architectural lock-in strategies that force them down a path requiring everything be purchased from a single vendor to get all the benefits. This idea is quickly becoming heresy to an industry racing to more heterogeneous enterprise access infrastructure.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to many of these new architecture initiatives, whether it’s Cisco DNA or Borderless networks, the bottom line is still all about selling new Cisco hardware and services to customers. Why not? Cisco is a business like any other.
But while the vision of digital transformation is real, enterprises are now asking themselves how an untested set of products will come together to solve real challenges facing network staff today, such as managing the network performance of a widely diverse client device base that now includes a myriad of IoT devices all operating on an increasingly complex access infrastructure.
Just analyzing the data riding over these networks to quantify the behavior of clients, applications, network services or the WAN and their impact on user experience has become a massive challenge that enterprises need solved in a comprehensive fashion vs. boiling the ocean.
The all-encompassing vision
The vision of DNA is that it will eventually reduce operational expense and headaches by making the network easier to understand and manage. This translates into more automation, assurance, and security. Yet operationally, these are three different problems that different IT and network staff must solve. The analytics approaches required to do so are very different.
Perhaps more important, DNA is an industry-wide recognition that network heterogeneity and complexity is only increasing and that analytics is essential for making sense of all of this data flowing up and down the stack.
Filtering fact from fiction
Still in its infancy, DNA will be a very long journey with a lot of its promises not being realized for years, if at all.
Many parts of the DNA architecture are still far from market maturity. A case in point is Cisco’s application policy infrastructure controller (APIC-EM) solution.
Introduced in 2014 to effectively automate CLI programming, APIC-EM was supposed to allow Cisco to deliver SDN-like functionality to enterprises with legacy infrastructure. APIC-EM has since been folded into DNA, but is still not considered a mature product.
DNA center remain on premise solutions today. This means Cisco DNA has an even longer road to travel to bring the benefits of born-in-the-cloud technologies to its customer base.
Another big area Cisco highlights with DNA is artificial intelligence (AI) and big data network analytics. Once you get past the window dressing, this is most definitely the place where DNA falls short. Here, the use cases Cisco has demonstrated here are far from present in their solution and lack substance. While analytics, AI and machine learning have great promise, Cisco is yet to bring any of these promises into reality. Two words: Cisco Prime.
What about location services? This is another often touted part of DNA. Cisco’s offering in this area is virtually non-existent. And the often-mentioned CMX solution is far from primetime and effectively discontinued.
Conveniently, realizing a lot of the promised value of Cisco DNA requires customers to upgrade their infrastructure. Whether purchasing the new Catalyst 9K for SD-Access, a new wireless LAN controller in hopes of trialing any of the latest assurance features or migrating to SD-WAN using Cisco’s recently acquired Viptela solution, hardware upgrades are required. Go figure.
Another big promise of Cisco DNA is making the infrastructure a platform with open APIs that will cultivate a community of innovation that benefits customers. But it’s far from that.
For DNA to be more than a passing fad, Cisco will need to focus on its strengths in terms of building great physical and virtual network infrastructure, and build a thin-layer of APIs on top of that infrastructure that best of breed 3rd party partners and developers can use to focus on solving specific problems and use cases. This is the formula that other successful enterprise software platform successes such as Salesforce, Splunk and ServiceNow have used, and would seem like the right thing for Cisco as well.
Honesty is the best policy
Let’s be honest, Cisco is a networking and infrastructure behemoth whose core strength building infrastructure hardware– whether it’s for the data center, campus switching, wireless, security, WAN, service provider, unified communications or compute. That’s how they became famous.
These very same strengths, are sure to be weaknesses that could stymie the realization of the customer value that DNA promises. These products were built for a specific purpose, in isolation of a grandiose vision.
Don’t get me wrong. The Cisco DNA story is a good one. But it’s a story. And you can’t build an infrastructure with a story.
For big architectural visions, enterprises must ask: will all the components of Cisco DNA be best of breed? If history is any indication, then no. Given the importance of today’s networks on today’s business, good enough, well, just isn’t.
This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?