Cisco’s Network Intuitive effort to bring intelligence, machine learning to networking

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A Cisco Systems logo appears on the outside of a network data switch in New YorkDaniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Simple isn’t a word that one often hears in the same sentence as the name Cisco. The IT giant is better known for the complexity of its offerings, as anyone who has tried to wade through the networking certification process can testify. There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears shed before anyone can achieve the top-level CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) designation.

That complexity has led to some embarrassing network outages for customers, one of whom suffered a three-hour outage last February after an admin mistyped a command. It’s not the first time that fat finger syndrome has caused grief, and it probably won’t be the last. Thirty years of history will make any transition difficult.

It’s not impossible though. At the end of 2012, simplicity entered the corporate equation for Cisco Systems Inc. when the company hired Rowan Trollope to build its collaboration business. Trollope emphasized the creation of what he calls “magical” user experiences. He gave the products under his wing a major facelift, shepherding WebEx into the modern world, then building a hardware and software collaboration portfolio that has garnered rave reviews and over a dozen design awards.

The rest of the company took notice. In June of this year, it launched updated networking products and a new catchphrase: “The Network Intuitive: powered by intent, informed by context.”

Which means what?

It means that Cisco has finally bowed to the need for ease of use and automation in its networking products. And it’s long overdue, CEO Chuck Robbins acknowledged in an interview.

The Network Intuitive, Robbins said, is one with embedded intelligence, built on Cisco’s open, programmable digital network architecture (DNA).

“The network sees all the data,” he said. “We believe that the network of the future has a more relevant role to play than it had in the last 30 years.”

The new network, he said, will be able to translate business intent into action, by — for example — automatically generating policies or provisioning resources to achieve business outcomes, or fixing problems without human intervention. Instead of applying policies to network devices, it applies them to users and applications, and using machine learning, it will get smarter over time.

Cisco says that its initial analysis of data from field trial customers and internal testing showed a reduction in network provisioning time by 67 per cent, improved issue resolution by 80 per cent, reduced security breach impact by 48 per cent, and created opex savings of 61 per cent.

Getting there was not half the fun. The company has completely rewritten the IOS operating system that runs its networking devices (not to be confused with Apple’s iOS operating system), replacing the complicated and error-prone command line with an attractive graphical user interface, and swapping out manual inputs for embedded smarts to help reduce errors and automate routine processes. It’s also designed to free network engineers for more mission-critical tasks.

The new operating system will first run on the newly announced Catalyst 9000 series of switches, with their future-proofing programmable chipsets that allow Cisco to upgrade them in place.

The goals are to cut costs, improve network performance, and increase security. With the newly open application programming interfaces (APIs), customers and partners can add their own functions to augment those Cisco offers.

Royal Caribbean Cruises is one of the more than 70 early adopters of the new technologies, and it has allowed the company — which operates more than 50 “cities on the ocean” — to deliver personalized services to its guests in real time, said chief information officer Mike Giresi.

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