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How Cisco's Viptela buy affects branch routers, IT customers

Zeus Kerravala says Cisco's ISR isn't going anywhere and discusses what its use of Viptela's software-defined WAN means for the IT giant's future, its product line and its customers.

Earlier this month, Cisco announced it integrated its Viptela software-defined WAN stack into IOS XE, the operating system that powers Cisco's integrated security router and aggregation security router. So, let's take an in-depth look at what this means for Cisco and its customers.

What Viptela acquisition meant

Cisco's acquisition of Viptela in 2017 created widespread speculation that Cisco would be dumping its Integrated Services Router (ISR) in favor of Viptela technology. This month's integration should put that theory to rest for now.

This is an important step for Cisco and its massive customer base that runs the ISR and Aggregation Services Routers (ASRs). There are currently millions of these units in the field, and they have become the de facto standard for branch router hardware. Cisco was founded as a router company, and there's arguably no technology it knows better or that has been more important to Cisco and its ecosystem than the ISRs and ASRs.

Since the rise of SD-WAN, pure-play vendors such as VeloCloud, Cato Networks, Riverbed and Silver Peak have hammered away at the message that customers should dump their routers in favor of something that can route. There's a big difference between a router and routing, and an argument can be made you don't need routers. Branch offices need routing capabilities, but do not necessarily need a stand-alone router. This has actually been the calling card of the ASR and ISR lines for over a decade.

At one time, a Cisco branch router was just a router. But over the past 10 years, Cisco added more functionality. The ISR and ASRs have switching modules, security capabilities, network optimization, VPN features and integrated applications -- such as CallManager Express, for example, where the router can provide small branches with calling capabilities. Recently, Cisco added edge computing, making ISR and ASRs ideal for IoT, AI and machine learning initiatives.

Cisco and SD-WAN

With regard to SD-WAN, Cisco had SD-WAN capability on the ISR for several years with the iWAN bundle. The reason iWAN isn't more widely adopted is it can be difficult to deploy. Also, while an SD-WAN trend is moving management capabilities into the cloud, iWAN doesn't have cloud management capabilities.

With this release, Cisco integrates the Viptela stack into IOS XE, turning it into a feature of the ISR and ASRs. It's important to note that not all ISR and ASRs run IOS XE, but all of those released in the past four years do. The ones built before that are getting on in years and will likely need a refresh soon.

Cisco was founded as a router company, and there's arguably no technology it knows better.

ISR and ASR customers are now able to shift to cloud-controlled SD-WAN without having to buy any new hardware. The ability to lower transport costs and to improve WAN agility and application performance without having to purchase or deploy any new branch router hardware should be a boon to Cisco customers and accelerate their journey to SD-WAN.

As part of this release, Cisco will bring Viptela vManage capabilities into the DNA Center management software. Consolidation of management tools is a must for Cisco, as having distinct tools for each product or area of the network makes running the network more complex. I've said before that no vendor has more single panes of glass than Cisco; vManage integration into DNA Center is a step in the right direction.

The strength of Viptela is vManage, as it provides excellent visibility and analytics to make troubleshooting broadband and internet-based connectivity easier. It also gives network professionals the ability to predict when bandwidth will become an issue, so upgrades can be done before users notice application problems. The software also optimizes SaaS applications, such as Salesforce and Office 365, making direct-to-cloud connectivity possible.

Cisco answers back on the branch router

Many SD-WAN vendors tout their software, but Cisco makes no apologies for their combined hardware and software offering. Many network features can be enabled in software, but hardware is still important for high-performance requirements, like voice and video packet processing. This has been a strength of ISR and ASR from the beginning.

Some customers have asked if Viptela will eventually kill off Meraki SD-WAN, but I think both will exist in the foreseeable future. Viptela is engineered for businesses with complex WANs that need to connect to data centers and public cloud services. Meraki is a full, turnkey product with end-to-end management across its entire product line of routers, switches, Wi-Fi access points and other infrastructure. Meraki is typically for customers with more basic needs.

Viptela-IOS XE integration gives Cisco ISR and ASR customers a fast path to SD-WAN without having to lay out money for new network devices, like a new branch router. Cisco benefits because it simplifies its management capabilities. More importantly, however, this is its answer to all the competitive vendors banging the anti-router drum.

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