Chuck Robbins on Cisco Plus, Webex investments, 5G opportunities

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Chuck Robbins on Cisco Plus, Webex investments, 5G opportunities
Chuck Robbins (Cisco)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cisco, a historically hardware-centric provider, ambitiously kicked off a company-wide transformation, complete with a commitment to transitioning the majority of its portfolio to be served up as-a-service.

Cisco Plus, the tech giant’s financial model for selling IT as-a-service that was announced last month at Cisco Live, was music to the ears of both Cisco’s loyal base of channel partners, as well as customers who were looking for a more flexible, cost-effective approach to buying IT. Cisco Plus’ first two “turnkey” offerings include a networking and hybrid cloud solution.

At the same time, demand for Cisco’s popular and industry-leading collaboration platform, Webex, began “exploding” last year as companies around the world shut their doors and sent employees to their home offices, said Cisco chairman and chief executive Chuck Robbins. But the calls for Webex are still rolling in as businesses shift gears and adopt hybrid work strategies that will include remote and in-office employees.

The next couple of years will be busy, but rife with opportunities for channel partners, Robbins said. Here’s what he had to say.

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On Cisco Plus and the company’s push to an as-a-service IT model

The Cisco Plus announcement was really just a continuation of providing our customers flexibility in how they [are] consuming our technology. We will have customers who want to consume our technology and do their own integration. We’ll have customers that will want to consume it as-a-service. And candidly, our partners have been at this for very long time, taking our technology and creating managed service offerings for our customers. I think there’s over $5 billion in annual revenue that gets generated [by] our partners through that method.

We’re just continuing to give optionality and flexibility relative to buying our traditional networking technology as-a-service. Then, also beginning to move into selling technology on a consumption basis, which is somewhat new for us. But I think it’s just about providing flexibility for our customers and giving our partners the option of delivering these technologies in different ways.

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On customers embracing the IT as-a-service model in the future

I think over several years, we will get to the point where a majority of [IT] is being consumed in that way. Customers just care about getting to the outcome they’re trying to get to. They’re trying to build -- in the case of the integration of our SD-WAN technology with our cloud security -- they’re trying to get to a flexible, wider network architecture that gives them security at the edge of the cloud, but flexibility with their traffic flows. That’s what they care about. None of them embark on buying SD-WAN and [Cisco] Umbrella. They want to get to that outcome. And this is the fastest route for many of them to get there.

Now, there are other variables that come into play. There are compliance issues, there are all these data sovereignty issues around the world that we’ll continue to navigate, but that’s why it’s so important to provide flexibility. But I do think that over time the majority of our customers will look to consume technology in this fashion, at least some aspect of our portfolio.

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On hybrid IT buying models and the importance of partners selling on-premise and consumption-based IT

If [the customers] start today, they’re going to have a hybrid model for five years or more. If they committed 100 percent to move to everything [to] as-a-service, it will take 5-10 years to get there, so I think because of just the technology architectural transition timelines, [partners] need to have a foot in both. That mitigates that short-term issue relative to the revenue recognition timeframe. Because when we moved into it, it was an element of our portfolio that we began to get there faster.

If you look at the components that are making up some aspects of what we announced -- particularly our SD-WAN technology is largely subscription-based today, our cloud security stuff is largely subscription-based today – So, bringing them together and creating a more robust service offering doesn’t take a huge revenue stream and convert it completely. If customers are moving from [integrated service routers] ISRs, branch routing technology, it will to some extent, but they’re going to do it anyway with SD-WAN. It’s going to be a subscription either way. So, I think that it is important for our partners to be able to continue to provide that flexibility to the customers.

On Cisco’s Plus’ monthly recurring revenue payment structure for partners

The team that architected this obviously had lots of partner involvement in building out the offers, as we always have. I think sometime in the very near future, I’m actually going to be participating in one of our Cisco partner executive exchanges, which we launched like 20 years ago, I think when I was in the channel community. So, that’s where we get the feedback on how we structure these things.

As always, we build these offerings and the profitability programs, and then as we get into the market together, [if] we have to make adjustments we will. But this is sort of the transition that we’re all going through. I’ve talked a lot with the Wall Street over the years about how early in my tenure we were deferring revenue because we were moving to this model. And I think that long-term, it’s good. There’s some short-term pain in how we navigate the implications, but it’s the right thing for all of us in the long run.

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On the more than 400 new Webex features in six months and using Webex to create inclusive environments

I think that the [Webex] team has done an amazing job of initially just ramping the underlying platform to accommodate 600 million users a month that are joining meetings -- they did that in an incredibly fast timeframe. And then Jeetu [Patel], he’s really come in and built a vision for the platform. The feature velocity is incredible, what they’re driving right now. I think you’re going to see us continue to double down on security [and] we’re going to have to work hard on dealing with digital sovereignty issues all around the world.

The [Webex] team is working on these features for inclusivity. Ironically, we used to think about a meeting where there are people in a conference room and then there were remote attendees and the remote attendees would always feel sort of removed from the meeting because it was sort of happening in the room. And now that everyone’s on video, if you think about the irony is, every person working remotely is going to have their own individual window.

In today’s technology, the conference room would have three or four people all sharing one little window, so they actually have a worse experience than the remote worker, which is the flip side of what we’ve had historically. Building features like the team has where they’re going to do facial recognition and then create an individual window for every user in that conference room to make everyone be equal in the session. Those are the kinds of things that teams are thinking about.

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On the investments Cisco is making into Webex partners  

It’s huge because we need our partners to actually deliver on a significant portion of our strategy. As we think about industry solutions around conferencing and our collaboration portfolio, as an example, we’re looking completely at our partners building those solutions on top, which compared to where we were 15-20 years ago, the opportunity that we can provide partners to create their absolute own intellectual property on top of the platforms is super important because then they’re not competing with who’s got the best price, who’s got the best implementation schedule [or] who’s got the best service offerings. It’s like you can build your own IP that no one else has. And I think those kinds of things are really important and it’s going to be helpful for our partners in differentiating their offerings as we move forward.

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On collaboration’s demand on the network and how partners to capitalize on these new customer needs 

[Collaboration] does create a network need. We’ve seen customers really begin to ramp their Wi-Fi 6 infrastructures. I think a big opportunity for our partners is this next generation Wi-Fi 6 and candidly, helping rationalize between what are the private 5G use cases and where Wi-Fi 6 the best solution. That’s where partners can play a big role.

Secondly, it’s every conference room is going to have to be equipped with high-end video conferencing. That’s an opportunity, particularly when you look at the safety features that we can have as we return to work, where these things can sense how many people are in a room and can actually provide alerts around social distancing requirements in a given conference room. Those kinds of things are super important.

I think as people go back to the office, the other opportunity we’re going to see is that as the Wi-Fi 6 networks begin to get loaded with traffic, it’s going to put a load on the underlying switching infrastructure in a campus that is supporting all that Wi-Fi traffic. We think that’ll be the next phase that’ll be an opportunity for our partners. And clearly, that’s all balanced with all companies trying to rationalize and think through what their footprint going to look like as you try to deal with this new hybrid work model.

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On what 5G will mean for the enterprise  

[We’re] probably in year 10 of the 5G discussion. I mean, we’ve been talking about 5G for a very long time. I think what we have seen is we’ve seen the build out of consumer enablement for sure. And I think what we’re going to begin to see -- and we are seeing now -- is the early phases of the enterprise use cases for 5G. Those are both public 5G services that they’ll consume from our partners, as well as this notion of what are the use cases that are really more appropriate for private 5G, like in the manufacturing space where latency is such an important issue, where you’re trying to get robotic signals back and forth across a manufacturing floor. There’s inherent interference in Wi-Fi that make those use cases perhaps better dealt with through private 5G. I think we’re all getting our heads around what are those use cases, and they’ll continue to expand.

The partner opportunity there and helping the customers actually understand that is very important. I think much like Wi-Fi 6 leads to an infrastructure upgrade inside an enterprise, private 5G and the public 5G services lead to internet infrastructure upgrades that we’re seeing happen across many of our service provider partners, and in many cases, our traditional partners help them with those architectures as well. So, I think it will lead to lots of opportunities.

Then, there’s the overall building out of enterprise services on 5G [and] the security associated with it. We’re going to see, much like we did with 4G, applications explode that we don’t even know today. We have no idea what they’re going to be, which will lead us to more opportunities. I mean, if you go back to the early days of 4G, no one expected we would be carrying the computing power and the number of applications we carry our pockets every day. I think that’s what will be interesting to see relative to 5G.

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On the what the future of work will look like  

As we get closer to returning to office, you’re starting to hear some companies say to all: “Everybody back.” Some companies [are] saying [everyone] can work from home. It’s going to be interesting. I think that we’re certainly seeing a future where we’ve learned that it’s okay to be remote and it’s quite acceptable to work remotely. When we all first started embracing this idea of working remotely, I can remember I was much younger and I had small children and you would always be very thoughtful about not letting anyone know that you’re – shh, keep your child quiet or keep your dog out of your office. Now, it’s like it doesn’t matter. People are sitting in meetings with their pets in their lap. Their kids are walking in. They’re putting on music, they’re dealing with their child, and they’re coming back to the meeting, which is actually what it ought to be. And so, we’re never going to go back from a version of that.

I think everybody’s pretty much aligned on the fact that it’s going to be hybrid. Most of our employees are going to work some number of days at home, some number of days in the office. There’s a percentage, some 20 percent that say they want to work from home every day. And there’s a very small percentage -- like less than 5 percent of our employees -- who actually say they want to be in the office every day, and everybody else falls in the middle.

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On the state of the economy, inflation, and the opportunity to sell more technology

Yeah, I think there will be [an opportunity.] The economists know their work better than I. I am not an economist. At best I have a mathematics degree and a computer science concentration. But I do believe that we will see – there’s this pent-up demand [from] the consumer, for all the things that they haven’t been able to do over the last 12 to 18 months. We all know it. We sit around and talk about, “Where’s the first place you want to visit when you go? Where are you going to go? What restaurants are you eating at now that you’re eating at restaurants?” And so, I think all of that flows through the economy.

I think the flip side, from the B2B side, is that every company on the planet came to the realization that they needed modernized IT infrastructure. So, the opportunity for all of the partners here is also that everyone is moving [forward] from wherever they are. If they were advanced, they’re trying to get even more advanced. And if they were behind, they realized they never want to be in that situation again.

You’ve got the stimulus funding flowing in. You’ve got this infrastructure bill, that some version of it will likely get passed. And so, you have all that money flowing into your economy. I’m not the guy to ask about whether this brings on inflation. But we still have demand in the real estate market during the pandemic, which certainly created housing price inflation. So, it’s hard to believe that you won’t see some of that. But I do think the economic growth is going to be there for all those reasons. There’s probably 10 other reasons that I haven’t mentioned. It should be, hopefully, a good few years ahead of us.

This article originally appeared at crn.com

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