Cisco Systems has said that like its routing competitor Juniper, it plans to open the operating system on its machines for third parties to develop applications to run on them.
Juniper got the ball rolling at the beginning of last week with the announcement of its Partner Solution Development Platform (PSDP), a program where carrier customers and other companies such as Avaya and Aricent can sign up, get licensed access to its JunOS operating system, and develop their own applications to run on it.
Later in the week Cisco revealed that it too has plans in this direction for its IOS software, though the process is a longer one. Unlike JunOS, IOS is still a monolithic piece of software.
Cisco needed to come up with a modular version for the service provider market, but it offers it as a separate product called IOS XR, running on the CRS-1 and 12000 series routers.
However, for vanilla IOS to be opened up, it will need to gain modularity, a process Alan Baratz, senior VP of Cisco's network software and systems technology group, called 'componentising' the OS. He said it would also be moved to a Unix-based kernel for robustness as well as a more standards-based stance.
Only after these processes are complete will Cisco be in a position to start offering APIs for third-party developers to work on apps to run on its boxes. Though it has provided no further details, it is thought that as with Juniper's PSDP program, participation in such an initiative will be by invitation, and quite possibly via the payment of a fee for the right to do so.
Some postings in the blogosphere have suggested Cisco's revelations were no more than a me-too response to what Juniper had said earlier in the week. They point, however, to deeper changes underway at the company, as indicated by reorganisation announced the previous week of the Cisco Development Organization, CDO.
The CDO is now organised into four groups: Access Networking and Services responsible for the ISR routers, fixed config switches, wireless, and security; Consumer and Small Business Group responsible for consumer and small business, including Linksys; Data Center, Switching and Services responsible for the data centre and campus switching platforms; and Software.
The Software group, which will be headed by senior VP Don Proctor, has been given responsibility for "setting the software strategy for the company both at the network level and at the services level," said Cisco in a statement. "This team will include network software, management, unified communications, and collaboration technologies, and will lead Cisco's efforts in software as a service."
Cisco CEO John Chambers said the backdrop to the changes at CDO includes "the next phase of Internet growth and productivity centred on the demands of tremendous video growth, the revolution in the data centre, and collaboration and networked Web 2.0 technologies, where the network becomes a platform for all communications and IT."
This idea of the network as a platform for everything else to play out on has been voiced before by Cisco with its service oriented network architecture, its own brand of web services and SOA that despite its impressive title, still lacks meat on its bones. There was much comment last week that a 'componentised' IOS, with APIs for third-party development, could be the natural evolutionary next stage in the process of making SONA a reality.
However, this raises as many challenges as it does opportunities.
How far up the stack toward applications does Cisco intend to go? And how many of the required skills does it have in-house to do so?
It is true that over half of its estimated 20 000 developers are software engineers, but these are not necessarily app developers, and at least one analyst, Rob Whiteley at Forrester Research, has been floating the idea Cisco should splash out on BEA Systems for access to its SOA, BPM, and enterprise social computing skills.
"BEA would be a logical, but lofty choice to truly build out 'the network as a platform'," said Whiteley in his blog.
The place a lot of these ideas may come to fruition could be in the new data centre switch Cisco watchers refer as the DC3, which was designed to bring together the Catalyst LAN switch and MDS SAN switching lines, and serve as a successor to the company's flagship Catalyst 6500.
What has so far been revealed is that it will offer multiple 10 Gbps interfaces, as befits a data centre, and will actually virtualise Ethernet, Fiber Channel, and InfiniBand connections. It would therefore appear to be a natural candidate to run the third-party apps that opening IOS promises to enable.
Cisco divides its enterprise offerings into four target areas: branch, WAN, campus, and data centre, with what it calls 'validated designs' for each. The ISR is for the branch, the Car 6500, and successors for the campus, while the new DC3 will be for the data centre.
Something new needs to be delivered for the WAN in 2008. Cisco needs to beef up considerably its optimisation/acceleration technology, an area where it appears to be playing second fiddle to the likes of Riverbed, or even, in the branch office, to companies like Blue Coat and Citrix.
Cisco plans to expand its remit for the coming year, moving to provide the platform, with its networking gear, taking on a lot of functionality previously resident on servers, storage devices and appliances like load balancers.
One of the challenges it will face in doing so, aside from the technical ones of re-architecting IOS, will be political. Many of the companies it has partnered with comfortably, such as IBM, HP, or EMC, will see it as moving into their territory. Just as this year saw the competition between Cisco and Microsoft heating up in the area of unified communications, so a number of the other companies will see Cisco encroaching on their domain in the data centre, and indeed, if it delivers on its SONA vision, even more broadly, in the enterprise market as a whole.