John Chambers | The network shall rule them all

Interview with John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems Inc.

John Chambers, Cisco President and CEO

Rick Steele

The life of a CEO is a demanding one, constantly jetting around the globe to soothe customers, partners and investors. So we were impressed when we showed up to meet Cisco Systems Inc.'s John Chambers'just before his keynote speech at the FOSE trade show'and he took time to pour us the beverage of our choice. But Chambers, who grew up in West Virginia, is a true country gentleman, eschewing the rhetorical warfare of louder counterparts such as Steve Balmer or Scott McNealy in favor of a more modest public demeanor.

Cisco is a networking powerhouse, with about $25 billion in sales for 2005, yet the company is beset by challenges on all sides'from upstart competitors, a converging network landscape and a touchy security community. Chambers spoke with GCN at length about how the company is addressing these issues and moving forward.

GCN: Is the public sector keeping up with private industry in moving toward IP-based telecommunications?

Chambers: Something has changed in the last couple of years, where the public sector is taking the lead again in terms of how to use technology effectively.

While I speak with a certain amount of bias, it appears that all forms of communication'data, voice, video'will move into the network, and all forms of IT will move into the network. Government executives are beginning to understand [that] the mission of government should be implemented through its IT and communications strategies. That is a huge, fundamental change from five years ago.

GCN: Why did Cisco purchase video company Scientific Atlanta?

Chambers: For its video expertise. We don't acquire competitors, we acquire to move into new markets. We believe in a quadruple play that will happen in all forms of government and business'which is data, voice, video and mobility together.
We're the leaders in data, voice and mobility. What was missing is video. Video is not just about transport. It is how you make it work in a mass-volume implementation, whether it is for entertainment or for security. We announced a smaller acquisition [on March 7, of SyPixx Networks], which is about video surveillance, combining the physical and cyberworld.

We approach [acquisitions] architecturally. So rather than thinking of your IP data networks as separate from your IP voice networks, think about how to pull these [elements] together in a common architecture.

GCN: Last year, security expert Michael Lynne created a buzz when he publicly disclosed vulnerability in a Cisco router. Are there any lessons learned for either party?

Chambers: Let's not talk about a specific event. Let's talk about how we approach security. We've always been very open about issues raised by customers or security researchers. And we address those issues. The correct way to deal with security issues is to [publicly] identify the issues, remedy them, and then roll [the fixes] out. You have to have the solution when you identify the issues. So any researcher should be thinking, 'Let me identify the issue, and let me give [the vendor] time to fix it.'

If the company doesn't respond, then it would be very appropriate to look for other ways of [correcting the problem]. But we've always been extremely responsive to issues.

GCN: As with any market leader, you have a lot of other entities dogging your heels, Juniper Networks Inc. being the main one. But some open-source router and PBX efforts are also gaining traction. Does this worry you?

Chambers: If you look at it, our view on how the market will evolve is different from most of our peers'. Most of our peers have individual products, and this is how customers purchase from them. You get switches from a few companies, routers from three or four companies, wireless from three or four companies, home networking from three or four companies. ...

We felt that these would come together under a common IP. We do not think a router should stand alone from a switch or from security. So we built architecture so that when you buy a switch, you put a card into it, it becomes a router, and if you put another card in, it becomes a PBX.

GCN: Will Cisco CallManager offer the same level of performance as standard, switch-based telephone service? If so, how do you convince the skeptics?

Chambers: Almost every source provider understands it will be an IP world. Most of them will understand that basic transport will have commodity-like behavior. So the question is, what services do you add on top of that?

To me, it's obvious that you will have data, voice and video, wired and wireless, completely transparent. Imagine being able to communicate with others based on what their presence is'if they're available or not, and [how they prefer to be contacted]. Again, the key is that this is an architectural play, not a point product.

It's why I am an optimist about productivity in this country. We were the ones to define [productivity] as being driven by network transactions. We're now saying it will be driven by collaboration.

We think you will see a wave of productivity [gains] over the next decade as we did in the last decade'assuming that we make the investments now, both with the right technology and the right government and business architectural strategy.

GCN: You've spoken quite a bit in the past about the state of education in the United States. What are your thoughts there?

Chambers: I'm a big believer in education. If you look at our scores compared to other countries, we are below. I believe our K-12 system is broken. And if we're not careful, we'll leave behind not 5 to 10 percent of our population, but 30 or 40 percent.

My parents taught me that education was the great equalizer. They were right at that point in time, but [then] you had to be in the right city and the right country to participate.

With the way globalization is going, the jobs will go to where the best-educated workforce is. So if our education system is not one of the best in the world, we will leave our young people behind.

America very much controls this, but we're making what I call incremental steps. You never get back into the league by taking small steps. We have to have more courage and make some tough decisions.

That's one of the reasons I did the Mississippi Education Initiative and Katrina Relief [a $40 million donation to improve the state's schools]. [The money] is not to rebuild the schools as before, but to redo the curriculum. If it works in Mississippi, why wouldn't it work throughout our country?

About the Authors

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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