Does AON Pit Cisco Against IBM, SAP, and TIBCO?

AON takes Cisco further afield from its roots—and deeper into an EAI segment dominated by IBM, SAP, and TIBCO

When it announced its new application-oriented networking (AON) initiative last month, Cisco Systems Inc. bent over backward to position AON as a non-disruptive market force.

While AON does take Cisco further afield from its network-centric roots—and deeper into an EAI middleware segment dominated by IBM Corp., SAP AG, TIBCO Software Inc., and others—there’s compelling evidence that AON will be a peaceable play: cooperation from IBM, SAP, and Tibco.

Cisco says AON will help foster the creation of intelligent networks that are better suited for business-application communications and that can support more effective and efficient business decision-making. “While I want people to buy the networks, if you don't put in the applications and process change, you won't get the productivity,” said Cisco CEO John Chambers in his keynote address at the company’s annual Networkers Conference, held last month in Las Vegas.

This isn’t the most radical aspect of AON, either. In proposing its vision of an intelligent, business-aware network infrastructure, Cisco is also positioning AON as an alternative to the traditional message brokers and other software-based middleware that are today used for the same purpose.

“[T]he AON solution … enables Cisco to position network infrastructure as a tool for increasing visibility and performance of transactional exchanges typically handled entirely in software by a middleware agent,” write Joel Conover and Shawn Willett, principal analysts with consultancy Current Analysis Inc. “This architecture enables Cisco to capture a greater degree of the dollars traditionally spent on integration and custom software development, while potentially helping customers to reduce system management overhead by reducing the number of resources necessary to manage high volume transactional data.”

In this respect, Conover and Willett write, AON is a shot fired across the collective bow of IBM Corp., TIBCO, and other messaging-middleware vendors.

“Cisco’s AON is a direct and powerful threat to TIBCO, IBM, and others in the high-end messaging space. In addition to acceleration services, Cisco is offering message level security including digital signatures, encryption, as well as some user level security such as authentication and PKI,” they note. “Cisco is even ahead of much of the traditional EAI market with its business event capabilities, essentially allowing events to be closely monitored and filtered and fed up to an enterprise console” of either Cisco’s or a third-party vendor’s design.

Cisco, of course, is anxious to downplay AON’s potential for competitive upheaval. For one thing, it has a long and fruitful history of partnership and collaboration with IBM. For another, initiatives such as the company’s Network Access Control (NAC) security program are dependent, in large part, on support from key independent software vendors. In fact, one of the reasons NAC has been so successful is because of Cisco’s heft in the networking space—and because of its perception as a benign competitor in the application software market. More to the point, AON is by no means an application-based technology vision: if anything, it’s a hardware-based play, with hooks (a la NAC) into compliant applications and middleware products.

Cisco, for its part, is leaving nothing to chance. The company enlisted statements of support from IBM, SAP, and TIBCO in conjunction with the AON launch. Cisco plans to integrate AON with message-queuing software from both companies (IBM’s WebSphere MQ and TIBCO's Enterprise Message Service); IBM and TIBCO, on the other hand, have pledged to create solutions that interoperate with AON.

There’s probably another reason Cisco is being so conciliatory toward TIBCO and other established EAI players: AON won’t make Cisco an overnight market leader. For starters, Conover and Willett stress, it’s immature—relative to both software-based EAI offerings, as well as competing me messaging acceleration products from DataPower and other vendors.

“Cisco should at least consider a low level process tool and better transformation and B2B connection management,” they write, adding, “AON is also a closed system with its own hardware, although adapters do allow it to link into other messaging systems or an SOA.”

What’s more, EAI competitors and others could strike back against Cisco, challenging AON on the performance front, in particular.

“Vendors such as TIBCO, IBM, Sonic, and others have well-developed software for distributed processing, QoS, caching, and other performance and availability that runs on general purpose hardware. These firms have extensive, if largely proprietary, benchmarking and have references in high performance messaging in stock markets and other areas for years,” Conover and Willett observe. “Cisco should try to come up with some neutral benchmarking, perhaps in concert with other vendors in this space.”

In spite of their caveats and concerns, Conover and Willett see AON as a bold move that has a very good chance of success.

“The main advantage of this scheme is higher performance, availability, and more discrete targeting of processes for Quality-of-Service-type features,” they conclude. “This is a well targeted, well thought out foray into software that has a good chance of seeing success.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.