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AON: Why the IBM and Cisco Relationship Is Headed For A Break-Up

Cisco’s long awaited announcement of its Applications Oriented Networking (AON) products a couple weeks ago foreshadows a coming battle that may rip apart the cozy and long standing strategic alliance between IBM and Cisco.  Cisco and IBM have somehow defied the odds over the last few years to maintain a high-profile strategic alliance, one which many people felt would be over faster than Britney Spears' 1st marriage.  The two companies have partnered together on a myriad of initiatives from data center management, to security, to storage networking, seemingly secure in the knowledge that neither firm had any intentions of getting into the other’s core business.  However with the launch of AON it is now crystal clear that Cisco has designs on at least a portion of IBM’s core business and that IBM must respond before one of its crown jewels, its infrastructure software portfolio, is rapidly commoditized.

E Tu, Taf?
The primary architect of Cisco’s new AON strategy, Taf Anthias, is none other than the former head of IBM’s MQ Series middleware messaging platform.  What Taf has done at Cisco is to try and create networking devices that are not packet aware, but message aware.  As I have outlined before, message aware networking is one of the most important trends in software today.  The focus of message aware networking is to migrate basic tasks such as security, transformation, and message routing away from application servers and message brokers and into network devices.  This migration should not only theoretically increase performance and enhance flexibility but it should also create the foundation necessary to properly run complex, highly scaled, Service Oriented Architectures.

Same Problem, Different Perspective
The problem for networking companies, such as Cisco, has been that message aware networking is not a natural fit.  While it looks a lot like networking in that it needs dedicated devices to process a large volume of standards based information quickly, it also looks a lot like application software in that it is message, not packet, based, and you therefore need to understand the context and content of the message in order to be able to process it.  Cisco recognized this conundrum some time ago and instead of trying to turn some of its “packet heads” into application engineers, it hired Taf.

Infrastructure software vendors, such as IBM, face the reverse problem: message aware networking looks a lot like middleware message processing, but it requires a level of performance, security, flexibility and even dedicated hardware that makes it look a lot more like networking.

An Uneasy Truce Leads To A Long War
For the last couple years, both the networking companies and the infrastructure software companies have recognized message aware networking as a dangerous, but potentially lucrative “demilitarized zone” that separated their two industries.  Up until now, both sides have been content to let a small cadre of start-ups fight it out as none of the big boys wanted to risk upsetting the global order by making a major move into the space.

However with the explosion of interest in Service Oriented Architectures and the rapid adoption of XML-based messaging, it was only a matter of time before one of the big players made a move.   Now that Cisco has taken the first shot with AON,  IBM, and other infrastructure software players such as BEA, HP, CA, and Microsoft, must respond or they risk ceding a significant portion of their “value add” to Cisco and other networking vendors.

While there are many battles left to fight in the war for control over message aware networking, the first casualty will likely be the previously cozy relationship between IBM and Cisco as it's hard to partner with someone that has clearly made a strategic decision to try to destroy part of your core business.

July 6, 2005 in Middleware, Security | Permalink


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The thoughts and opinions on this blog are mine and mine alone and not affiliated in any way with Inductive Capital LP, San Andreas Capital LLC, or any other company I am involved with. Nothing written in this blog should be considered investment, tax, legal,financial or any other kind of advice. These writings, misinformed as they may be, are just my personal opinions.