Dismantling Cisco’s Conservation of Complexity Gambit

Close-up of rack mounted server in server roomFrom the very beginning, Cisco Systems tightly embraced the use of complexity as a market differentiator. Creating a complicated CLI to configure networking gear instead of a relatively simple GUI – Wellfleet’s choice — was an early move down this path. The next cab off this particular rank was the creation of the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) program in the early 1990’s, which, in full disclosure, I had a hand in developing back in the day.  This program was explicitly designed to be as difficult and complicated as possible – mirroring the products themselves – so that a CCIE “diploma” on a cubicle wall would be considered a badge of honor and give bragging rights to its owner.  And, with something like 3-1/2-million CCIEs out there today, this particular bit of planned complexity was clearly a winner.

The inherent irony in all of this is that ante-Cisco life in networking was quite a simple place, really.
 (Show of hands anyone who remembers the two top bridging vendors, Halley Systems and Vitalink?)  But, at the end of the day, networks had to grow so that businesses and, eventually, the Internet, could run on them, and bridging technology simply wasn’t up to the task.  So, routers and switches were born.  Cisco fully understood that complexity – for them – worked wonders against their competition by locking in customers. It has doubled down on this tactic ever since.

But the same complexity that helped give Cisco close to a 90-percent enterprise market share has, in turn, exacted a huge toll on its customers, many of whom are starting to feel a bit like lobsters in a quickly warming pot.  They have enterprise network architectures – typically switch stacks in wiring closets and massive chassis switches – that basically haven’t been touched much since the last big enterprise networking refresh associated with Y2K. Now they have some 16,000+ Cisco salespeople – more salespeople than the company has engineers, BTW – trying to sell them products with 22M lines of code, some 30-40-percent of which is dead custom code done long ago for other customers. (Numbers courtesy of Gartner.)

In a desperate attempt to try and make some sense of this chaos, enterprise customers often flock to the annual CiscoLive! events where they are presented with a “choice” of over 1,000 sessions, labs and seminars. Wow.  Not wanting to leave any “monetization of complexity” opportunity on the table, Cisco has even created an IT Management program to teach people how to manage the complexity that Cisco brought to them in the first place.

When Cisco does try to “address” the complexity question with marketecture efforts like their new SD-Access initiative – a program that at least pays lip-service to some level of network simplification – they still require customers to perform highly unnatural acts.  For example, if a customer was interested in learning about simplification and SD-Access at this year’s CiscoLive! in Barcelona, he/she would have had to attend twelve different instructional talks and labs in multiple buildings over a span of three days. Right. 

Enough already.  There is a better – much better – way to modernize and radically simplify existing enterprise infrastructure, one that’s just around the corner and is coming from us at Pica8.  Watch this space.  If you’re currently running a legacy enterprise network that’s up for any form of refresh or expansion, you’re going to like what you see in the next couple of weeks.


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(The Cisco Chronicles. Vol.1, No.1. The first in an occasional series of musings relating to the early days when vampire taps were still a thing (by employee #78).