What a place of contrasts the Cisco Live conference and exhibition at the ExCel conference centre is.

The venue itself is a singular piece of modern construction overlooking that feat of 20th century engineering, the Thames Barriers, and London City airport. Yet all around are the ghosts of London's industrial past: an abandoned mill, derelict warehouses, forgotten wharves jostle with the newly constructed edifices. It's a world where Dickens' Gaffer Hexham mingles with Amis's John Self - a fascinating clash of opposites.But then, so is London itself. It's a city that like to place itself at the heart of the modern world - particularly in finance, the creative industries and the media. And yet, all Londoners are acutely aware that it's a city that derives much of its income from tourists attracted by its historical past. It's a city that tries to straddle the 19th and the 21st century - a feat of some agility.

It's a highly appropriate place for Cisco to hold their conference because here's a company that tries to present a multi-faceted view of itself - many of them contradictory - and boasts of its pedigree and its distinguished history at the same time as it emphasises its forward-thinking. And this mass of contradictions emerged during John Chambers' keynote speech.
There were plenty of constant themes in Chambers' presentation: technology driving productivity; openness - both in terms of data and in terms of companies being flexible and open; the importance of education and training, and how the public sector can work hand in hand to overcome the recession.

There are plenty of contradictions there. For a start, the stressing of openness sits oddly with a company that has historically sought to tie in customers to a Cisco way of working. To take one current example, the tie-up with Vmware and EMC in its launch of VBlock, the packaged virtualisation offering. That's a product that's going to garner plenty of interest from companies impressed with the pedigree of the vendors involved but such a proprietary approach is the antithesis of an open solution.

Or take the importance of learning about new technologies. Chambers took pains to stress that the event was all about education, a chance to learn about new technologies and Cisco's plans - it sounds great in theory, it's a pity then that my attempts to attend sessions to hear about some of these technologies were blocked.

For those who haven't been to these events before, Cisco runs a colour graded system and only certain classes are allowed into all events. Everyone is rigorously separated - customers, exhibitors, resellers, journalists, bloggers, students etc - and told to keep to certain areas. All well and good for Cisco but it scarcely squares with a presentation that boasts of openness and the importance of education for the IT community.

Cisco's is not unique here, of course: virtually every enterprise in the world has been build around elements of control, of lockdown and secrecy. Newer, more nimble companies, are moving out of that mindset, Cisco has some way to go.

Chambers also spoke enthusiastically about the the innovative nature of Cisco's business and the hard numbers spent on R&D. In truth, Cisco does spend heavily in this area but even when announcing the figures Chambers let slip the need to market them heavily - as well as mentioning the cost of acquisitions. But then, it's a company that wants to have it both ways - a long and distinguished history and a trendsetter for the future.

The Cisco conference started with the cast of Oliver performing a couple of numbers. Here was everything in a microcosm - a nostalgic look at London's past (airbrushing out the prostitution, child exploitation and grinding poverty) and the dynamic networking company.