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Gartner’s View on Cisco Strategy

June 12, 2012

Gartner’s View on Cisco Strategy.

Gartner’s View on Cisco Strategy

1 March 2012 ID:G00225511
Analyst(s): Andrew Butler


Cisco has emerged from a challenging year to remain a significant IT infrastructure vendor through 2012. The company recently refocused its strategy to extend its influence across the data center and into new markets, and Gartner will continue to watch its execution on its strategy.


Gartner has identified eight key vendors whose influence drives the evolution of the market for IT infrastructure; Cisco is one of them. As it restructures after a disappointing FY10, we examine the relative position of Cisco in the industry, and the strategic initiatives it is putting in place to make it better able to compete for both market success and margin growth.

Key Findings

  • Core networking products contribute about 50% of Cisco’s business, and represent the most strategic and highest-margin businesses it has.
  • Declining margins, increased competitive pressure and net income decline have been major catalysts in driving numerous corporate initiatives to lower operating costs and stabilize gross margins.
  • Cisco has reacted quickly to the publicly recognized challenges it faced at the start of 2011, with extensive restructuring of corporate roles and responsibilities and line-of-business (LOB) ownership.
  • Cisco follows a strategy of aggressively using itself as a laboratory for its products to clearly demonstrate the value propositions its offerings can bring to the market.


  • For core networking needs, shortlist Cisco, but also evaluate at least two competitors to ensure the best possible pricing and validate Cisco’s value proposition.
  • Only tactically invest in less profitable or nonstrategic Cisco products, as it may continue to shed less/unprofitable product lines.
  • When planning new projects, prepare for the potential that Cisco channel or collaborative partnerships could be dissolved or diminished, exposing the need to evaluate alternative solutions.

What You Need to Know

Spurred by weakened investor confidence and growing competition across multiple markets, Cisco embarked on a broad mission of restructuring in 2011. As a result, it has many assets that should work in its favor in 2012 — a product portfolio that is broader and more proven than that of most of its competitors, a huge customer base with continued goodwill and strong relationships with a broad portfolio of global partners. Cisco must further address the common market perceptions that its technologies are more closed and proprietary, and it must also complete the restructuring of LOB roles and responsibilities as quickly and cleanly as possible, as well as demonstrate that it’s feasible to implement and maintain common management techniques across its diverse portfolio of products.

Vendor Focus


Since its founding in 1986, Cisco has become the leader in networking, and, during the past decade, it has embarked on implementing a broad expansion strategy to extend its reach and influence across the data center and into several new markets. With a strategy strongly based on indirect fulfillment and a steady expansion of service capability, Cisco products influence a large number of clients. IT leaders who are managing, implementing or advising on the deployment of Cisco-branded technology will find relevance in this research.

Vendor Background

John Chambers has been the CEO of Cisco since 1995; he assumed the additional role of chairman in 2006. Under his leadership, Cisco’s revenue has increased from $1.2 billion in FY95 to over $40 billion in FY11. While Cisco is often compared with other product-centric data center vendors like Dell and HP, comparisons with IBM and Oracle best demonstrate the variations in product mix and go-to-market approach between Cisco (with its hardware-centric portfolio driven mainly through indirect channels) and Oracle (where software equals almost 70% of revenue) and IBM (where a strong focus on professional services makes that business around 60% of revenue).

While software only represents about 7% of Cisco’s total revenue and services represent about 20%, Cisco is building programs that will increasingly leverage software and services to help increase client value. SMARTnet support services (which account for most of the service revenue) already lead the network equipment industry in end-user and channel satisfaction for technical support, and are being extended to address other LOBs. Cisco has also been growing its advanced services, with offerings like network optimization services.


Market concerns over Cisco’s acquisition and expansion policy have circulated for some time, but it took the downturn in financial confidence to make Cisco publicly recognize its challenges, and initiate the swift restructuring that the market is seeing. With several of its competitors now signaling similar challenges, it feels it is well-positioned going into the next few quarters, and the company has been aggressive in its stance and future plans. To better understand how it is responding to market pressures, it’s important to understand the financial picture. Analysis of Cisco’s business results shows mixed results, which have helped drive, to a major degree, restructuring during 2011. Figure 1 highlights revenue contributions for Cisco in FY10 and FY11.

Figure 1. Cisco LOB Analysis
Figure 1. Cisco LOB Analysis


Source: Cisco financial reports

Cisco is showing a pragmatic approach toward the continued challenges in the market, with new financial guidance issued on 12 September 2011. Cisco predicts revenue growth of 5% to 7% annually through 2014, gross margins of 60% to 62% for FY12, operating margins in the mid-20% range annually through 2014 and earnings growth of 7% to 9% annually through 2014.

Cisco’s recently revised reporting structure separately reflects core switching/routing business (representing around 50% of revenue) and the company’s other product lines. While Cisco’s share in routing and switching has held up reasonably well, there is little growth due to increased competition. The traditionally high margins came under pressure in FY11 and are expected to fall further in FY12.

The three LOBs of collaboration, data center and wireless are showing good growth (26% year over year in the case of wireless) and represented about 14.2% of total revenue at the end of Cisco’s last fiscal year. But margins are also correspondingly lower — especially for the data center LOB — which is made up of Cisco’s Nexus, UCS and virtualization products. Cisco invested heavily in this business to build channel and support expertise and to establish market momentum. Service provider video comprises video systems and cable systems, including the set-top box business that stimulated Cisco’s acquisition of Scientific Atlanta.

While recent growth in core networking products has been limited, these continue to be the most strategic and highest-margin businesses for Cisco. New businesses like collaboration, data center and service provider video are critically important to the company, but any enduring commitment will hinge on Cisco’s ability to drive market success and improve margins through increased volume and value engineering efforts. Cisco must fight on two fronts, competing aggressively against new competitors and more fickle client loyalties in its core networking business, while also investing intelligently in new LOBs, some of which need significant market development. Across this mix, Cisco must closely manage gross margins and better articulate its brand and technology value to protect against further erosion.

Cisco reported a year-over-year growth rate of 8% in FY11 (which ended in July 2011), with total revenue of $43.2 billion — a measurable decline compared with FY10. Product gross margins (nongenerally accepted accounting principles [GAAP]) were down nearly three percentage points, although Cisco was able to offset some of this through improvements to gross margins on services (up almost two points in FY11). Despite the growth in revenue, net income (non-GAAP) declined by about 4% in FY11. These results were a major catalyst in driving numerous corporate initiatives for lower operating costs and stabilizing gross margins in FY12.

Cisco’s fiscal 2011 income statement is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Cisco FY11 Income Statement
Figure 2. Cisco FY11 Income Statement


Acronym Key: EPS — earnings per share; G&A — general and administrative

Source: Cisco financial reports

Revised Organizational Model

During 2011, several organizational and managerial changes were made. This culminated in a new matrix structure announced in early December 2011, with five engineering groups having global responsibility for bookings, revenue, gross margin, simple contribution margin, market share and operating expenditures:

  1. The Data Center Group (primarily data center switching, servers, storage and load balancing)
  2. The Enterprise Networking Group (enterprise routing, campus switching, wide area application services [WaaS], wireless LAN and the networking elements of the Small Business team)
  3. The Security and Government Group (the Security Technology Group, Global Government Solutions Group and Corporate Security Programs)
  4. The Service Provider Networking Group (Converged Optical and Routing [CORBU], Edge Routing [ERBU], Service Provider Access [PABU], Customer Operations and Mobile Internet Technology Group)
  5. The Video and Collaboration Group (Collaboration & Communications [CCG], TelePresence [TTG], Service Provider Video [SPVTG], Home Networking and Emerging Technologies; in addition, the TTG and CCG have been merged into a single Collaboration Group)

The matrix structure is balanced by five strategic technology groups that are designed to drive consistent strategies and architectures across the engineering groups:

  1. Cloud and System Management Technology Group
  2. Engineering Operations & Systems
  3. Network Operating Software Technology Group
  4. Silicon & Central Engineering
  5. Research and Advanced Development

Strategies for Success in 2012

In go-to-market terms, Cisco plans to achieve market growth and stable margins via several strategic initiatives, including:

  • Maintain (and selectively grow) its core businesses to neutralize the competitive threat and maintain the revenue stream as a form of annuity
  • Expand its collaboration footprint and market reach, particularly in new areas like cloud computing
  • Emphasize its role as a key vendor in the data center, with new-generation servers and switches designed for the new world of virtualization and cloud
  • Promote and expand the market for pervasive video
  • Expand the breadth and scope of partners to include service providers that can constantly address new market opportunities
  • Introduce new service capabilities (e.g., integrated architecture specialization) to enable partners to further their service expertise, including access to Cisco’s 500 named Transformational Accounts
  • Promote business transformation through the gradual implementation of what Cisco calls interactive network architecture (addressing the traditional belief that interfaces across multiple Cisco products are often disjointed and lack a common look and feel).

Laudable as these objectives are, enterprises must continue to measure Cisco against a series of challenges, such as the financial constraints that have damaged investor confidence and the constant need to achieve margin improvement through value engineering. Many corporate challenges are also not unique to Cisco; like other major IT infrastructure vendors, it has to face growing uncertainties in financial markets and the potential for budget constraints across the industry. Meanwhile, the competitive environment will be challenging across multiple businesses. Cisco is building strategies to more aggressively counter the threat of established networking rivals (like HP, Brocade and Juniper Networks), but emerging vendors like Huawei will also pose a growing threat. The search for success in markets like collaboration and data center will also pitch Cisco into competitive conflict with vendors that have often been allies — or at least “neutral neighbors.” In keeping with other product-centric vendors, Cisco faces a constant brand awareness challenge to make cloud computing initiatives reflect recognition of the Cisco contribution, rather than just endow credit to the partners and other front-end players that deliver such strategies.


The Top 10 Questions Gartner Clients Ask About Cisco

Cisco-related inquiry volume from Gartner clients increased massively in 2011 (particularly in 1H11), partly due to the influence of less expensive competitive offerings, the weakened market confidence in Cisco in early 2011, and because clients wanted to be sure that Cisco’s increasing adjacency moves into markets like data center, collaboration and video represented safe investments. The most common lines of conversation with Gartner clients fall into these categories:

  • What are the best negotiation tactics to use with Cisco?
  • What product lines are truly strategic to Cisco, and which ones may still be vulnerable to reduced investment or even closure?
  • Should users worry about the recent declines in gross margin, and what will this do to Wall Street confidence and Cisco’s ability to execute its long-term plans?
  • How will Cisco lower the costs of doing business and create a more nimble and agile corporate structure?
  • How can we develop a closer direct relationship with Cisco?
  • How are Cisco’s channels coping with these effects, and what new relationships — or failing current relationships — should users focus on?
  • Can Cisco reduce the financial exposure to the core networking business, especially with increased competitive pressure and growing willingness by some users to invest in “good enough” network infrastructure?
  • How is Cisco developing its partner network, and how can I pick the best partner to address my needs?
  • How will Cisco position product lines that are in general transition (e.g., the Nexus product line, which enjoyed significant growth in 2010 and 2011, and the more established Catalyst product line that is heavily deployed and has been recently refreshed)?
  • Which vendors are best-positioned to compete with Cisco?

Core Networking

Cisco’s financial results remain heavily reliant on the core networking businesses that have made it so successful in the past decade. In the past few years, competition has steadily mounted, although Cisco remains the market leader by a comfortable margin in most, if not all, geographies. But with the increasingly viable competition, the powerful concept of the single vendor network strategy is under pressure due to increasing consideration of commodity switches for certain workloads. The growing degree of market competition has provided rivals with the ability to undercut Cisco on price, thus increasing discounts and contributing to the decline in gross margins. As a result, Cisco has experienced fluctuating results in revenue per port — these rose in 2010, but declined through three quarters in 2011. Routers and switches contribute around 50% of Cisco’s total revenue, typically yielding higher-than-corporate-average gross margins. Cisco saw a steady decline in corporate revenue growth and margins from FY10 to FY11. Furthermore, the anticipated growth for enterprise and service provider switching and routing is only 3.5% for these combined businesses through 2015.

However, there are some bright spots. Growth in router business is exceeding that of switches (7% year over year), and high-end routing accounts for 70% of routing business (12% growth year over year). Networking has long provided Cisco with a strong repeat business opportunity, especially in the years when competition was limited and market preference tended toward a single-network vendor strategy. We also believe that much of Cisco’s market success in new business areas like blade servers and collaboration is achieved partly through strong data center relationships cemented by the strength and longevity of the networking business.

While Cisco’s access/wireless strategy has made progress with innovations such as cellular to Wi-Fi authentication as part of the Hot Spot 2.0 initiative and a needed component for cellular offloading, product innovations were largely stagnant in 2011. Cisco is able to benefit from strong growth, but this is not difficult in a market that is growing at almost 30% annually. But Cisco has been one of the slowest vendors in the WLAN Magic Quadrant to move toward integration of the wireless control plane within the network infrastructure. Cisco’s Unified Management strategy has much work to do to achieve management harmonization in this area. For example, Cisco strongly promotes its Medianet capability. While this solution manages video very well, the management of voice and messaging is absent from the solution. Similarly, Medianet has difficulty in providing latency information about voice streams on the network, which is key for determining the mean opinion score (MOS) for voice applications.

Cisco’s Borderless Networks strategy has made strong progress in the shape of Prime. While showing great innovation, Prime must evolve to better leverage the reality that not every network is made up from 100% Cisco components. While Prime delivers clear value for an all-Cisco network, there is new opportunity for Cisco to be a clear thought leader in providing baseline management of multivendor infrastructures.

Finally, there are many legacy businesses in the core networking product portfolio that will have limited new business longevity. For example, investment in LOBs like Catalyst will logically decline as the Nexus product line gains strength. However, today, Nexus margins are much lower than those of Catalyst, again contributing to the margin dilemma Cisco is working to resolve. Furthermore, many catalyst users, while acknowledging that their investment is legacy, have no desire to migrate from the Catalyst 6500 chassis. This will continue to put pressure on Cisco to make moderate investments in Catalyst technology, such as the Supervisor 2T module to the Catalyst 6500 backplane.

New Businesses

Cisco is making gains across all its new businesses areas. The businesses getting the most attention are collaboration/unified communications (UC) and data center, which includes the Nexus Switches and Unified Compute System (UCS) server businesses. Collaboration remains Cisco’s No. 2 strategic priority after core networking (including routing, switching, mobility, security and related services). With a $4 billion run rate, strong software margins and 40% annual growth in the collaboration market, this is not surprising. In a year of steady staff attrition, Cisco has continued to recruit strongly in this area, including several senior management positions poached from competitors. Meanwhile, Nexus and UCS separately became $1 billion businesses during 2011. Data center also represented the highest degree of Cisco-related Gartner client inquiry growth in 2010 and 2011. Cisco’s UCS is highly innovative, and is particularly targeted at highly integrated and virtualized enterprise requirements, along with a growing focus on cloud and other service providers. The UCS architecture differs from that of other vendors by deploying the top-of-rack (ToR) switch as a management server, which is then able to assign “virtual personalities” to the blades that become automatically provisioned upon installation. Other vendors need to deploy a subnetwork in order to achieve a similar result.

Cisco’s growing server market viability continues to test the relationship between it and most other server vendors. Cisco is a founding member of the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) Alliance, which has developed into a joint venture funded primarily by Cisco, EMC and VMware, with additional minority funding from Intel. VCE is responsible for engineering a vertically integrated solution based on UCS called Vblock, which targets multiple workload requirements for a highly integrated, converged infrastructure platform. Cisco has also developed similar vertically integrated solutions with NetApp (FlexPod), Citrix Systems (VXI) and other vendors, to target specific end-user workload and application needs. While still relatively new to this market, Cisco has created a great deal of awareness, and is aggressively driving its blade strategy to increase wallet share in accounts where it has established a strong influence. Cisco started to openly disclose its UCS results in 2011, and, in the first three quarters of 2011, it achieved a clear No. 3 market position in North America (although Cisco and Dell compete for global third place, based on units and revenue).

Cisco is heavily implementing collaboration in its own business practices. By the company’s own estimates, collaboration is already enabling 5% to 10% productivity gains and savings of more than $1 billion. Internal use cases include extensive deployment of Quad; travel savings from TelePresence, WebEx, etc.; and integration with business applications like SAP and Oracle E-Business Suite. Cisco has continued to increase investment in Quad, with several product announcements made in June 2011. This included partnership models to be delivered through the Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS) strategy and closer integration with other collaboration suites (e.g., IBM Lotus Sametime 8.5.1 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2, with Lync to come later).

The launch of Cisco Jabber will finally deliver on a single client interface to access all communications modalities available in the Unified Communications Manager (UCM) enterprise platform and cloud-based WebEx, whether installed on PC, Mac or various smartphone OSs. Version 9 will especially strengthen the user appeal of Cisco’s Unified Workspace Licensing Professional Edition package, where moving between the different UC channels will be commonplace. The proposal to integrate all video endpoints into UCM is also promising, although Cisco must work harder to demonstrate the cost-of-ownership benefits. It is logical that organizations committed to both UCM and Tandberg should have a lower total cost of ownership with a common call control layer, but it’s not clear whether leveraging UCM in place of Video Communication Server (VCS) will provide a lower cost of ownership.

Cisco’s Collaboration/UC strategy is also enabling many new relationships. For example, its HCS cloud UC offering enables Cisco to gather multiple cloud services providers (CSPs), including AT&T, Verizon, Logicalis, CSC, Accenture, Swisscom, Vodafone and Dimension Data, all of which are set to deliver services in 2012 based on HCS. So far, Cisco has demonstrated over one million committed licensed users through the 15 service providers that were public by 4Q11. However, Cisco will face the challenge to avoid disenfranchising smaller (but still innovative and/or influential) system integrators (SIs) that are too small to commit to HCS as a delivery platform. Cisco could make a decision to implement a pared-down platform for these smaller integrators, but could become competitive with other HCS initiatives from larger providers, especially where Cisco directly supports its service provider channels by providing advanced technology solutions.

HCS is essentially a virtualized version of on-premises-based UCM. By using partners as the point of service delivery, Cisco (like many other IT infrastructure vendors) will face a branding challenge. As the customer point of contact will be the CSP or SI, Cisco will need to create market awareness of its contribution, much as Intel has done with its “Intel inside” strategy.

In 2011, Cisco created growing awareness for the Cius, its Android tablet. However, with Cisco distancing itself from consumer market variability, the Cius will not be positioned as a general-purpose competitor to better-known tablet brands. The focus will be on positioning Cius as a consolidated management console for a variety of Cisco client interfaces. Furthermore, Cisco is not putting all its tablet eggs into the Cius basket. Most Cisco client interfaces (gradually moving to Jabber) will also run on Android and iPad tablets. As with other advanced technologies, Cisco is likely to find a limited set of partners capable of communicating the benefits of Cius, which, complete with docking station, has a list price of $1,000. Selling the value proposition needs to be focused at a much higher management level, and be based around operational efficiency and business process; this will require a different set of partners for Cisco’s mainstream community.

We expect Cisco to make additional gains through the promotion of its “Video is the new voice” strategy. Until recently, the collaboration strategy has remained focused on the market around UC and conferencing, and there has been much less progress to date across the broader definition of collaboration that would encompass team spaces, social media and content. However, events late in 2011 started to indicate a more balanced collaboration strategy for Cisco in 2012.

While Cisco’s other new businesses are all generating limited revenue today, investment in businesses such as building maintenance, energy management and security will remain high priorities for 2012 growth. Meanwhile, Cisco must work to address weak recent performance in its security business, which is publicly emphasized as highly strategic to the company. Also, Cisco must demonstrate an increased focus on small, but growing areas, such as application delivery controllers and WAN optimization.

Company Restructuring

Increased operating expenses in FY11 have contributed greatly to the 1% drop in net income, and this has sharpened the pressure on Cisco to streamline its operations. The downturn in financial fortunes has provided Cisco with the responsibility (some would say opportunity) to execute a radical company simplification process. This corporate restructuring will take several quarters to properly mature and yield tangible benefits. Cisco also must still demonstrate that the new matrix structure will re-energize its global workforce to become more proactive.

For the past few years, Cisco has encouraged a highly divested governance structure that distributed corporate decision making across various operating boards and councils to drive ideas and innovation. The objective was for the councils and boards to collaborate with the operating committee and each other to help set business strategies and promote ideas for new investments. While this was a very laudable goal, the number of boards and councils grew largely unchecked; at the start of FY11, there were 47 boards and 12 councils, creating a fragmented culture that allowed for duplication of effort, vague lines of responsibility and the potential for important issues to fall between the cracks. Most boards reported to a council, although a handful reported straight to the operating committee, creating even more confusion regarding hierarchy. This stifled fast decision making and masked accountability, making Cisco sluggish against more-agile, smaller competitors that were able to evolve their technologies more easily.

The board/council structure was not just in Cisco’s manufacturing divisions, but was also echoed through the corporation, including field operations. The boards have now been reduced to five, and the three remaining councils are aligned to the key customer segments of emerging countries, enterprise and service provider. Cisco has also initiated early retirement/reduction in force (RIF) programs, and has significantly reduced contractor head count. We do, however, still see hiring in strategic growth areas, like collaboration.

Future success hinges on Cisco’s ability to foster natural communication and collaboration between different parts of the company when the culture has encouraged a “go it alone” attitude for many years. Cisco still has a very loyal channel, and faces the additional need to ensure that its partners integrate the solutions and deliver the Cisco story consistently. Recent restructuring in the sales and channels groups was focused on the definition of partner-led and customer-led initiatives, with at least one senior vice president put in charge of each strategy. Cisco is making increased investments in the field and the partner ecosystem to achieve better alignment. Cisco must also demonstrate that the corporate restructuring and recent management changes will not impact the quality of leadership, and confidence will remain patchy around the future of more-marginal LOBs that are yielding low margins or revenue and are not an obvious fit in the five-part company strategy. Future acquisitions must also be supportive of company investment priorities. Cisco has already made progress with its decisions to exit the Flip camera business and the Umi home/small or midsize business telepresence line. However, plucking the low-hanging fruit just makes the market focus on whatever LOB is left most exposed.

Cisco has significant assets that should work in its favor: a product portfolio that is broader and more proven than that of most competitors (and ongoing re-evaluation and rationalization will make it stronger still), a huge customer base with continued goodwill, and strong relationships with a broad portfolio of global partners. Gartner has identified additional challenges that Cisco must address to sustain market success, primarily:

  • Correcting common market perceptions that its technologies are more closed and proprietary, making technology coexistence harder to implement
  • Completing the restructuring of LOB roles and responsibilities as quickly and cleanly as possible
  • Demonstrating that it’s feasible to implement and maintain common management techniques and value for data center, networks and client premises, let alone dependent client applications
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