Cisco vs. All Comers

In the networking ring, there is no dispute — Cisco is the champ. It’s been dominant in all types of networking devices for more than two decades, so its move over the past few years into adjacent markets in order to expand its footprint beyond networking — into blade servers, consumer products, video servers and services (such as via its acquisitions of Webex and ScanSafe, respectively) — made perfect sense. What’s been surprising, however, is how flat-footed and weak the counterattacks from the competition have been.

I’ve observed three distinct approaches being taken by Cisco’s competitors: One, trying to match the company punch for punch; two, teaming up with a common enemy; and three, jabbing repeatedly at a perceived weak spot.

Punch for Punch

In the match-punch-for-punch camp, we have three companies: Hewlett-Packard, Juniper Networks and Huawei. Hewlett-Packard, with its recent acquisition of 3Com, is trying to wail away at Cisco’s core – the enterprise networking market — with a formidable set of networking product lines, which can nearly match Cisco when it comes to routing, switching, wireless LAN and security appliances. But without a coherent end-to-end marketing strategy aimed at the enterprise customer, and some near-perfect sales execution, HP-3Com will stumble.

Same goes for Cisco’s traditional competitor in the service provider market, Juniper Networks, which bolstered its lineup of enterprise offerings last May with an eye to Cisco, and Chinese networking giant Huawei, which is trying to match Cisco’s offerings after selling its share in its failed Huawei-3Com joint venture back to 3Com. The enterprise isn’t looking for lower-priced point solutions, but a long-term strategic networking plan — a plan that has traditionally come from Cisco.

Teaming Up

Meanwhile, Cisco’s foray into the blade server market has prompted two principal incumbents — IBM and Dell — to join forces and ink deals with Juniper. And last week, another traditional enterprise networking vendor, Polycom, also teamed up with Juniper in the wake of Cisco’s acquisitions of ones of its rivals, Tandberg.

But fighting as a team can be difficult to do, especially when one member is trying to play on multiple teams. There can be divergent marketing messages, channel partner conflicts and much finger-pointing when solutions fail to perform or interoperate as expected.  Can the teams of Juniper-IBM, Juniper-Dell and Juniper-Polycom beat up on Cisco?  Juniper’s involvement in all three will make that a challenge.

Repeated Jabs

The last strategy, that of jabbing repeatedly at a perceived weak spot, isn’t intended to take Cisco down, but rather to weaken it further, loosening its grip on a specific market and hopefully capturing the attention of an even bigger Cisco competitor at the same time. Two specific areas of weakness for Cisco are application acceleration and next-generation 10Gigabit ethernet LAN switching.  In the fight for application acceleration there is Riverbed, F5 Networks and Zeus Systems, while two next-generation LAN switching companies to watch are Force10 Networks and Arista Networks.  None of them will single-handedly overtake Cisco in these arenas, but they have and will continue to cause Cisco pain by luring over its enterprise customers with the promise of high performance and features. If one of these companies were to be bought by a larger Cisco competitor, the fight could get more interesting, but it would take more than one acquisition to make that happen.

While a decade or so ago, Cisco would have been the winner by a knockout in the second round of any of these fights, today, it might just take the company until round four. All of its challengers — new and old — need new ringside coaches.  Their current fight plans cannot match Cisco punch for punch, team fighting will be difficult and clumsy, and you don’t win a heavyweight fight with jabs. As evidenced by its latest quarterly results, at least for now, Cisco continues to reign as champ.