Friday, July 25, 2008

Can Anyone Challenge Cisco For Leadership In Network And Data Equipment?

When it comes to network providers and data equipment vendors can anyone really compete with Cisco? The perception may be no. But the reality may be far different. Or at least a little muddy.

Yes, Cisco commands a whopping share of the networking industry pie. However HP, Nortel, Alcatel, Huwaei have of late been aggressively eyeing this space for more of the market share. But for anyone to truly challenge Cisco's dominance ... they have their work cut out for them.

In my opinion, Cisco just keeps smaller players like Juniper and Foundry in the data networking market to avoid monopoly situations. With the largest footprint, deep market penetration and wide open breadth of high quality product portfolio, it has built a significant level of durability into its competitive business strategy.

As far as Alcatel (or Alcatel-Lucent), and Nortel goes, they can be classified as telecom players more than data comm players and HP is too diversified to compare with Cisco as a pure data networking player.

Cisco's business can only be threatened by changes in consumer preferences/demand (external) or technological obsolescence of their current products (internal), both of which are hard to imagine due to the capital resources it spends on marketing research and niche acquisitions.

Juniper is positioning themselves on many levels to compete with Cisco. With their newly released switch platform and the J series routers and the acquisition of Netscreen and Redline etc. Juniper already has competed fiercely for the core network space and has done marginally well with the ISP market. They have not cracked the enterprise very well, though. With their new product launches aimed directly at knocking Cisco off their perch, we may see the landscape change. Large corporations like to have more than one vendor to play off each other. Healthy competition forces innovation and drives price down.

If Juniper can ever figure out an effective marketing plan and lay off the stupid cartoons attempting to be funny, they may have a legitimate shot. They did a very brilliant thing a couple years ago and offered free classes to current and potential customers to get engineers more familiar and comfortable with JunOS. Remember OS/2 did not die because it lacked quality or desirable features.

Nortel has established the necessary feature, functionality and footprint within the voice industry. As the line between voice and traditional data blurs, Nortel will be an increasing threat.

However the one component of the question left out was "why does Cisco have this position?" The answer to this question can be found in the answer to how many IT graduates have studied Cisco courses, or are Cisco accredited, or have used Cisco equipment during their education? Interestingly the answer is most. There are very few Juniper accredited graduates, and even fewer Nortel graduates, let alone Huawei. But this doesn't mean that their respective products are better, worse or equal to Cisco. Iit just means that Cisco has cleverly used brand to differentiate itself from its competitors. People by their nature gravitate to what they know or feel comfortable with. This doesn't mean its right or wrong, its a comfort thing. The same question can be asked about McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi, and Nike.

The difference is not so much the technical side of the equipment vendors, it's more the marketing approach of the companies.

Cisco, although a manfacturer, has marketed itself as a 'system provider' which is only accomplished by joint strategies with larger system integrators. This has led the client to believe that Cisco is larger and more versitile than it actually is, a very clever approach. Cisco has always run a platform to enable its clients to adopt IP strategy in the data and voice arena without massive initial cost. Thereby crossing the boundary of voice and data ( a normal strict division).

Juniper markets to the voice elements i.e. the old PABX people in voice such as the telecoms market.

Procurve sells to a strict SMB market place and is a cheap reseller product.

The Chinese have developed a Cisco competitor based in Basingstoke, UK. However it lacks a strong marketing plan with clients.

This is why we all talk about voice and data convergence. It is what most companies try to sell. However there are still strong divisions in the end-user/client job roles .... with data rooms being one area .... and voice frames in another.

The end deal is simple .... each manufacturer, each integarator from different arenas with different skill sets needs to work together to resolve/serve a clients needs. The client requires an aspirin for his headache .... and not the ingredients to make his own. Cisco will dominate in its market due to a strong stategic partnership program with direct relationships with the client. If someone wants to challenge this they have a lot of work to do yet ..... this is not really a question of technical ability.
But .... I honestly believe that Cisco is poised to take a fall just as IBM did back in the early 90s. They have forgotten that people think of them primarily as a networking company. They are no longer the first out with new ideas. They seem to think that a "me to" attitude will suffice.

For example a friend's company has just done an evaluation between 3com, Cisco and HP. All three companies make products that can easily provide him with a fantastic network. In the end Cisco has offered huge discounts, which make it competitive, but is unwilling to extend the discounts for any period of time.

They are already a Cisco shop, and they are really only comparing them to other companies for several reasons. The big one is this .... in the last couple of years they've been installing HP and 3com switches to expand their network. Because, in general both products are around 1/3 the cost. Every time they decide to purchase a new switch, they research and just can't justify the additional expense, since both of the other products will meet their requirements.

HP is a sound product line, well thought out, and has a lifetime warranty. They know exactly how to position their product, and where to price it. Their sales folk run circles around the competition. They clearly intend to clean Cisco’s clock in the small to mid sized market, and have the resources to do so. The HP solution allows you to use Chassis in the wiring closets .... if you so choose .... without paying any real premium. Their switch OS seems to be very very much like Cisco’s, but there are fundamental differences which some will find refreshing and some frustrating. Cisco better watch out for these guys.

3com has an awesome produce line in the 4500, 5500, 5500G and 8800 products. The performance is astounding, for over 2 years now in their 5500 G product line, they have been able to stack logically and physically with a 192Gbps. backplane speed. If you want to turn a non powered switch into a powered one .... all you have to do is change out the power supply. Which costs only as much as the differential in cost between the powered and non-powered switches. There has been a 10G slot in back since it was designed. They now offer an OSM module which can go in the 10G slot. The OSM module is a linux card with backplane access.

The switch OS is somewhat IOSish .... but is improved in the way you can query it, ("display this" is awesome) and the way the debugs work.

In the last 3 years 3com has vastly improved their support staff. They actually call you on the phone (which Cisco people seem not to want to do anymore) and seem to offer a high level of expertise.

3com offers 2 IP PBX lines the NBX and the VCX. Comparing these 2 today is similar to comparing the Mitel SX100 in 80s and 90s with the ROLM. The NBX is a rock solid medium to small PBX that works great, and offers lots of features. It comes up short, however, if you are looking at an enterprise level solution. This is where the VCX comes in. It can scale virtually as large as you want it to, offers great features, and although they struggled with it at first, it is now a very stable product.

This product line is awesome, and they can beat Cisco’s price even with Cisco coming in at incredibly high discounts. If 3com is ever forgiven for leaving the Core market when they did, and if they ever learn how to market their products effectively, they could easily capture a significant piece of Cisco’s market share.

My friend has not made a decision yet, but it does seem a little unlikely that he will continue to drink the Cisco Kool Aide any longer. Cisco is an amazing company, and he and I believe they will discover their vulnerabilities and react well, but not before they feel lot’s of pain. My friend has worked with their products for 18 years, and is sorry to see what has happened to them because of their amazing growth to power. Hopefully Cisco can recover their leadership aptitude and attitude.

If you're looking for Cisco equipment (and support) ... or an alternative ... I recommend using this simple search tool to find a reputable source in your area:

Network And Data Equipment Comparison

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