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Cisco Courting Developers to Make Routers Smarter, More Valuable

A worldwide developer contest is the latest step in a bold company plan to establish the network as a viable development platform while fanning creation of "network- aware" applications

July 20, 2009

By Laurence Cruz

Wooing third-party software developers to create applications for routers may seem like a long shot. For the ubiquitous Microsoft Windows, Facebook or iPhone, sure.

But for routers?

In one analyst's words, most developers likely don't know what a router is, much less how or why to code a software application for one. But that may be about to change. Last fall, Cisco Systems launched a worldwide contest challenging developers to come up with ideas for applications for its best-selling Integrated Services Router (ISR).

Specifically, the applications would run on what Cisco calls the "applications extension platform," or AXP. That's a feature within the router that enables it to host third-party applications and potentially endows them with the all-important quality of "network awareness" – the ability to tap the intelligence within the underlying network and thus help customers solve business problems and reap a better return on investment, Cisco executives say.

"What's exciting is the sheer amount of information you are able to extract from the network, whether it's performance metrics or understanding volume trends at a location, and then using that to make better decisions," says Dominic Del Balso, vice president of enterprise technology and operations for KeyCorp, which runs Cisco's ISRs in most of its more than 1,000 branch offices.

"As an industry, we've always been trying to figure out how to get beyond just the basic plumbing, and I think this is going to be one of the tipping points."

— Rob Whiteley, senior analyst, Forrester Research

And developers are taking note. The contest, themed "Think Inside the Box," drew close to 900 responses from 75 countries. Since then, the field has narrowed from 110 qualified teams to 10 finalists, announced in May.

In the contest's last phase, now underway, the finalists are developing their proposed applications on the router. In August, a panel of judges will weigh contestants' efforts, then select three winners, who will share $100,000 in prize money.

A New Inflection Point

Software applications come in myriad flavors, from word processing or accounting programs to restaurant locators, searchable movie listings and games. In the business world, they typically have access only to the information that flows in and out of the server they reside on. But an application that resides on the network has access to a mother lode of contextual information that's ripe for customization.

Thus, a worker swiping her ID badge in a card reader might not only be granted access to her workplace, but also have the lights, air-conditioning, computer and printer automatically turned on in her office by a network-aware application. And when she badges out, the application will power down same devices.

In healthcare settings, a patient's alarm going off might automatically trigger a network-aware application to send a message to a clinician, taking into account the clinician's skill set, real-time location and availability – without the need for manual paging.

And in retail, holiday-season shoppers may be spared delays at the checkout thanks to an application that senses heavy network traffic and prompts a store manager to temporarily raise the credit card floor limit, say from $25 to $50, thus expediting authorizations and keeping customers happy.

It's this potential that Cisco hopes to unleash for its customers by tapping the developer community.

"These mainstream routers are getting smarter and delivering greater value to our customers," says Shashi Kiran of Cisco's Network Systems and Security group, who is overseeing the contest. "It's a new inflection point for the industry."

Keeping It Simple

Putting applications on routers, whose basic function is to direct information along network pathways, is not particularly new. Kiran says a number of Cisco routers host applications, as do some routers made by other companies. But he says these have barely scratched the surface of what network-aware applications can do.

Kiran says Cisco's ISR family is well suited to leading the way, in part because of its massive popularity – a requirement for attracting developer interest. He attributes that popularity to two trends: One is the feverish efforts by many companies to consolidate servers and network services in data centers. The other is the corresponding push by many large corporations to minimize complexity in their branch offices, wherever possible eliminating servers and other network equipment along with their associated costs.

That's where the ISR comes in. It is the vital communications link between the branch office and the external world, serving as a gatekeeper of sorts for all information that flows into and out of an office. Its forte is keeping things simple in the branch by collapsing the various applications traditionally housed in separate devices – security, voice and wireless applications, for example – onto a single device that's part of the network.

The resulting operational efficiencies have made the routers a hit with customers. Since the routers launched in the fall of 2004, Cisco has sold over 6 million and commands close to 86 percent market share, Kiran says. "The routers solved a key business problem and made things a lot easier," he says.

A Network App Store?

In the consumer world, Apple has dramatically demonstrated the value of the third-party developer model with its iPhone "App Store." The virtual store offers more than 35,000 applications and in April logged its 1 billionth application download, just nine months after the iPhone launched.

Rob Whiteley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research and a judge in the developer contest, says he foresees a day when the network will have an analog to the iPhone App Store, with some key differences.

"No one will adopt apps for fun – especially in the current economy," he says. "You'll only adopt an app if it's streamlining something you already do, or adding new value that you wouldn't have otherwise found economically feasible."

Whiteley says a developer community for the network would finally shift the value of networking beyond the commoditized delivery of packets to the much more valuable delivery of services.

"As an industry, we've always been trying to figure out how to get beyond just the basic plumbing, and I think this is going to be one of the tipping points," says Rob Whiteley, senior analyst of Forrester Research

The Network as Platform

Zeus Kerravala, a senior analyst with Yankee Group Research, says Cisco's biggest challenge in carrying out its "smart router" strategy will be market acceptance of the concept. That said, he views Cisco's plan as a multi-billion-dollar opportunity that could bring about a change as profound as the Microsoft Windows-led personal computer revolution of the 1980s, which trumped once-dominant IBM mainframes.

"If Cisco can establish the network as a viable development platform, it makes a whole bunch of application developers out there instant Cisco customers, even though they probably don't know anything about the company today," says Kerravala, who is also a judge in the contest. "And that alone will boost margins for the entire family of routers."

As for the contest, Kerravala says it's a significant step toward Cisco's vision of the network as a platform.

"There's going to be a time when everything we have in our lives is connected, from cars to building systems, elevators, alarm systems, whatever," he says. "When you connect everything you start to think how you can do things differently. The network will provide a lot of that intelligence."

Thinking Inside the Box

The 10 proposals submitted by the contest finalists focused mainly on unified communications and collaboration, with some centering on security and others on automation. Judging them will be a panel of Cisco executives and industry experts.

For their part, Whiteley, Kerravala and Del Balso – also a judge – say they will evaluate applications based on their potential to save money, be useful for a long time and in a wide range of industries, and for their creativity.

"It's one thing to do something one way and then move it to another platform," says Del Balso. "But that's not creativity, that's an enhancement. I want to know if an application is going to solve a problem that I didn't know existed. That's unique."

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

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