Update: Cisco adds intelligence to network gear

IBM, SAP, Tibco are key partners in Cisco's AON messaging vision

Embarking on a new direction, Cisco Systems unveiled details Tuesday of its first move into the messaging middleware business with its AON (Application-Oriented Network) business unit.

At its Networkers conference in Las Vegas, the company announced the formation of the AON business unit, a number of technical relationships -- most notably IBM -- and products that are intended to add more intelligence to the network. This added intelligence will better equip the network to understand business-application communications in order to support more-effective business decisions, according to company officials.

"AON is a new technology direction for Cisco as well as a new product offering," said Stephen Cho, senior director for product management in Cisco's AON business unit.

AON supports Cisco’s vision for the Intelligent Information Network, Cho said. It is a network-embedded intelligent message routing system that integrates application message-level communication, visibility, and security into the fabric of the network.

The AON group will roll out its first products later this year. Initial offerings will be a branch-office router and a blade that can be used with Cisco switches. Eventually, the company will add a stand-alone AON device and a branch-office router that connects to SAP applications, Cho said.

The AON products will be about the size of a hardback book, he added. Pricing on the products will be announced later this summer.

Cisco is hardly going it alone in providing these services. It is also bringing aboard third-party providers who can build add-ons to Cisco's products. IBM and Tibco Software, for instance, will participate in the middleware space, building products that will allow AON to interpret messages sent by those middleware systems.

While it might look as if Cisco's AON and IBM's Websphere products would compete, IBM officials said the collaboration between the two would work to the customer's benefit. The goal of the collaboration is to create stronger integration between Websphere and a number of network infrastructure layers by simplifying the IT infrastructure, thereby reducing complexity and the total cost of ownership.

Another benefit of establishing tighter integration between the two companies' respective technologies is that the integration can serve as a building block for an SOA, IBM officials said. This in turn can help corporate users create an on-demand business that better integrates data across the enterprise as well as externally with business partners.

"Traditionally Cisco calls on networking guys and we call on a software guys," said Jeff Henry, IBM's director of Websphere Product Management. "And so now the two are able to play off one another's infrastructure much better, especially as our customers start to roll out SOAs. It breaks it down into more consumable components. When you use the network and middleware layers together, it provides a good infrastructure for an SOA."

By embedding the Websphere MQ client as part of AON, designers reportedly created the industry's first network-based messaging support for business applications. One of the major benefits is that the Cisco-Websphere combination can handle process traffic based on priority, making it easier to enforce service-level agreements and to handle traffic skews, officials from both companies said.

“Adding intelligent application message handling to the network enables applications and the network to work together as an integrated system,” said Taf Anthias, vice president and general manager of the AON business unit.  “It makes sense for us to collaborate on this initiative with IBM, given IBM's position in the application integration middleware market."

With SAP, Cisco is working to integrate AON and Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA) with the software giant's SAP Business One software.

“By combining ESA and AON with SAP Business One, we will have the ability to deliver significant customer benefits for parent companies and their subsidiaries, such as improved application security, easier application deployment and even better integration, better business visibility, and network-based policy management," said George Paolini, executive vice president for platform ecosystem development at SAP.

Cisco is also working with other services and software firms, including: Actional, ConnecTerra, Contivo, CXO, EDS, Infogain, ManTech, SAIC, Trace Financial, TransAct Tools, and Verisign to build additional add-on products and services to the AON architecture. Cisco has also established an AON partner support, training, testing, certification, and marketing services program.

"We expect to have other partners to announce as well," Cho said.

IT analysts said Cisco's move into more middleware-type products made sense.

“The nature of the enterprise network is evolving from a low-function communication service to a high-function enterprise nervous system (ENS),” said Roy Schulte, a vice president and research fellow at Gartner. “This is changing application design and IT-management practices in fundamental ways. In a conventional architecture, intelligent application systems interact through a low-function, fairly ‘dumb’ network," he said.

By contrast in an ENS-based architecture the network is as intelligent as the applications. The ENS offloads logic from the application systems by transforming and redirecting messages and providing other services as appropriate, Schulte added.