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The Network: Ultimate in Collaboration

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- PDAs, DVRs and smartphones. Grab all of the fancy gadgets you want.

But the key to allowing people to collaborate via video, voice, data and mobility is still the network, which is increasingly becoming virtualized to connect people from any application and any screen.

The network will essentially become the platform as the industry hurdles toward the so-called Web 2.0 of shared applications and social networking.

Such was the message from Cisco Systems  CEO John Chambers at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo 2006 here today.

"We believe the network will enable all forms of communication..." Chambers said in a keynote interview moderated by Gartner analysts David Willis and Tom Bittman.

John Chambers
John Chambers
Source: Cisco

"The virtualization that people ask about, whether it's voice, data, video, mobility; whether it's servers, applications, or storage, will happen in my opinion."

Chambers' prophesying comes at an interesting time for Cisco; the company, which has built its multi-billion-dollar empire by selling the pipes that facilitate data over the Internet, is looking to establish new revenue streams to continue its formidable growth.

For example, to deliver the network-based collaboration Cisco promised, the company has opened its umbrella to include middleware applications.

The company calls this software scheme application-oriented networking (AON), the core of its service-oriented network architecture (SONA), for connecting corporations to the Internet through the network.

The crux of this plan is using virtualization to deliver what Chambers said is "any stream to any application in any format you want -- wireless, fixed, data, voice, video."

This virtualization, he said, will occur first in the datacenter, or across storage, servers and networks, which Cisco has gained through acquisitions of Andiamo and Topspin.

Eventually, virtualization will spread to desktops and other devices in the home to facilitate collaboration.

To flesh out its AON strategy to the fullest extent, Cisco will partner vendors such as SAP  and IBM , he said.

Chambers said that Cisco will continue to move "very aggressively" into middleware and collaboration software and is actively working on new models to sell the software.

"We're learning how to sell software and support software," Chambers said. "We're also learning that sometimes our customers would prefer to have it bundled.

"Sometimes we're not smart enough yet to figure out how you know to charge in ways that adds value to customers."

Though Cisco is extending its tendrils to software, Chambers hardly believes the plumbing well will dry up. After all, this software will rely on improved, intelligent routers, directors and switches to deliver data packets across the network.

"These plumbing pipes are really going to get bigger and faster and more intelligent," he said.

"The intelligence is going to go throughout the network. You'll have no idea what kind of intelligence sits on the device in your hand, the server down the hall... The network will enable all aspects of it."

Gartner's Willis also noted that several companies are preaching intelligence in the network, infrastructure, applications and middleware and asked Chambers how Cisco plans to compete in this evolving world of on-demand networks and adaptive enterprises.

Chambers claimed a neutrality despite the fact that Cisco is looking to cut big slices of the same markets as many of the world's largest players.

"We don't compete against competitors," Chambers said. "We compete about identifying market transitions, the tipping point if you will, lifecycle of the market.

"We try to identify those three to five years before they become major because it takes us that long to build in ASICS, build in new product architectures, etc."

He said Cisco is a safe partner to align with because it dabbles in many areas and doesn't "fall in love" with routers or switches or any single aspect of the networking market.

However, this neutrality could be a tough act to maintain; while Cisco partners with IBM on several fronts, Big Blue bought DataPower last year, thrusting itself to the forefront of the AON market.

"We're really going to paint the picture that Cisco will go across all communications, all IP, enable entertainment in the home, all the way to business process implementation," Chambers said.