***Please note that these are my own thoughts and not those of my employer.
First and foremost, I have to credit Jimmy Ray Purser from Cisco for putting the idea for this post in my head. Back in late April of this year, he wrote an article for Network World entitled “The ABC’s of Anybody but Cisco.”
Like a lot of people, I work on networks that have a lot of Cisco gear. I’m very comfortable with their stuff. I’ve used CatOS, IOS, and NX-OS. Switches, routers, phones, firewalls, load balancers, access points, voice gateways, ACS, etc. It’s all familiar. Old hat. A lot like the old comfy t-shirt that Tom Hollingsworth wears. I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy into learning their product set. One could say my familiarity with their gear has been responsible for a significant portion of my earnings over the years. I don’t want to give the impression that I am a paid shill for Cisco. After all, I don’t work for a Cisco partner. I’m one of those corporate types who occupies a cubicle and acts as the caretaker for a decent sized network. Not a massive network, but big enough to have some direct support from our local Cisco office when we need it. We don’t use Cisco for every single thing on the network side, but if the various vendors on our network had voting rights, let’s just say that Cisco would be able to influence any election in their favor.
Although I use a lot of Cisco gear, I also try and keep an eye on the other vendors out there. On a given day, I probably get at least a dozen e-mails from other vendors and networking publications. Additionally, I have an ever growing RSS feed list comprised of dozens of vendor blogs and blogs from the many networking professionals I follow on Twitter or have found via word of mouth. In other words, I spend at least 10% of my day consuming information from Cisco, other vendors, and networking professionals who may or may not share my viewpoint. I feel that gives me the potential to have a very well rounded view of the networking industry. Whether or not I can process all of that information to form worthwhile opinions is another matter. Suffice to say, I am trying to put in the hours to ensure I can make the best decisions for my employer.
The challenge to vendors other than Cisco is figuring out how to pitch their product and have it SERIOUSLY considered by people who manage networks where Cisco dominates. This can be done, but it takes marketing and sales people who understand who their likely customers are. I’ve seen and read plenty of non-Cisco pitches. Some are very good and offer compelling reasons to consider their product. A lot offer nothing other than “We’re not Cisco!”.
A few years ago, I read a very interesting book about Wal-Mart called “The Wal-Mart Effect”. I thought it was a mostly balanced look at the company and how they do business. One of the most interesting parts of that book was where a retail executive was giving advice on how to beat Wal-Mart. He said that you would NEVER beat them on price. They are too big and have too much influence over their suppliers. Wal-Mart will do whatever it takes to get the lowest price possible from the supplier. You beat Wal-Mart by creating a better experience for the customer. Give them better quality. Give them better product selection. Give them nicer facilities to shop in. That’s how you beat them. If you try and take them on in a price war, you WILL lose. I think about what that person said and try and apply that to Cisco’s competitors. How do you compete with the overall networking market leader? In my mind, that requires some different thinking.
1. Don’t spend all day bashing Cisco. – If I am willingly talking to another vendor as an alternative to Cisco, it’s probably because I realize there are other options out there. You are not helping your cause any if the main thing you have to offer is that Cisco sucks and you are better. Up until July of this year, the Riverbed blog was full of posts slamming Cisco. I’m not going to say that Cisco didn’t deserve some of those. I’m not even going to make the argument that WAAS is the same or better as Riverbed when it comes to WAN optimization. Clearly Riverbed is doing some great things in WAN optimization. They’re very easy to setup and administer. Their products work very well. Sell me on those points. Sell me on the fact that it works and that you’re offering me things that the other WAN optimization vendors are not. When I have to deal with corporate arrogance be it from marketing content or sales people, I get turned off on the product real fast. Why? Well, arrogance breeds complacency. It doesn’t allow an organization to see clearly and eventually someone is going to catch up and turn your double digit market share into single digits. When competing with a company like Cisco, you are competing with a very well oiled marketing machine. Don’t ever forget that. In fairness to Riverbed, I haven’t seen that mentality lately. As a result of that, my feelings toward them have improved greatly.
2. Don’t preach to me about standards. – If there’s one thing I hear the most, it’s that vendor XYZ is a completely “standards” based company. If you have been around the Cisco community for a few years, you know how instrumental they are in driving standards. VRRP, MPLS, PoE, LLDP, 802.1q, and CAPWAP among others are a direct result of Cisco and their influence. Additionally, some of these companies that want you to use their hardware because it is standards based are producing their own variants of certain standards. I can think of a couple of vendors right off the top of my head that have their own enhancements to VRRP. Most of the Cisco gear I have been around support these “standards”. Remember, they drove the creation of quite a few of them in the first place. Yes, Cisco does make modifcations/enhancements to things like OSPF and other protocols, but so do most large vendors. My point is that everyone supports standards, or they wouldn’t be standards. What vendors are really trying to tell me when they are preaching the fact that they are standards based is that by using proprietary protocols, I am locking myself into Cisco. That, in their minds, is a bad thing. I can assure you that I am aware of the risks of running EIGRP, HSRP, or whatever proprietary protocol that Cisco puts out. It’s also not a good idea to assume that I am running any proprietary protocols just because I have Cisco gear.
3. Your presentation needs to be polished. – Please, please, please spend some time on your documentation and presentation material. Understand that people who are buying and deploying Cisco have access to very polished design guides, configuration guides, product data sheets, etc. While I am not asking you to replicate the entire Cisco documentation/support ecosystem, it would help if you ran your documentation through a spelling and grammar check before displaying it on your website. For examples of good documentation outside of Cisco, see Juniper. They have their act together.
4. Innovate – Sometimes a radical approach to the way we are used to seeing things is needed. Aerohive is doing some very interesting things in the wireless space. They’re not using controllers to manage their AP’s. The AP’s manage each other. Very different and very cool. I’m not a wireless expert. I don’t use their products. I don’t have any plans to use their products in the near future. However, I AM keeping an eye on them and if an opportunity comes up in which they would be a good fit, I won’t hesitate to reach out to them.
Juniper has completely sold me on their SA line of SSL VPN appliances. Everyone I talk to about them has the same feeling. Very feature rich!
Riverbed is the leader in WAN optimization. I use their product and am very satisified with it. It just works.
Arista has created a compelling offering in the data center switching environment. The fact that I can run numerous third party applications on their switch due to their granting me shell access is VERY interesting. Oh, and I should also mention that nobody else can give me the same amount(384) of wire speed 10Gbps ports in a chassis(7500) of their size(11RU).
Brocade and Force10 both offer an interesting alternative to the standard top of rack copper switch or Nexus 2k FEX line. They have line cards that support the MRJ21 connector system developed by Tyco Electronics. Essentially, your top of rack switch is reduced to a patch panel that connects back to a Brocade or Force10 chassis. However, this is not a 1 to 1 patch panel. Rather, a single MRJ21 cable(about the width of a pencil) connects the patch panel and chassis. Each cable supports 6 10/100/1000 connections. The patch panel is not the ordinary punch down block you are used to seeing. It’s a modular cassette or fixed 24 or 48 port 1U patch panel. None of these cassettes or patch panels require power. All management is done from the central chassis. If you are familiar with Nexus 2k administration from the Nexus 5k, this is similar. The benefits to this technology are three fold. First, there is no power consumption required in the top of rack. Second, all administration is done from the central chassis which can be located at the end of the row, middle of the row, or on the other side of the data center. Third, with the modular capabilities, you can split up the 24 or 48 ports your typical top of rack switch has. 1 logical 48 port switch being managed at the central chassis can be spread out over 2 or more racks.
That’s it. Four simple things from my perspective. There may be more, but to me, these are the big ones. I didn’t mention pricing. I don’t usually see this as being an issue. Other vendors know what the pricing is going to be from Cisco. They can figure out based on the size of the company what the discount is probably going to be. They may not know the exact amount, but they can make a pretty good guess. Your product needs to be cheaper. That’s a great selling point for a lot of vendors. They know you are paying for the Cisco name, so they can use that as leverage. If it is not cheaper, it better have some sort of compelling reason to be chosen. There needs to be a “wow” factor and not vaporware. It needs to be legitimate.
You’ll also notice that I did not address the problems with Cisco itself. That would take another long post and there are plenty of other capable bloggers out there hammering away at them on a regular basis. My goal in this post is to focus on how to compete with Cisco.