Cisco one day would like to be known as much for IT infrastructure management as it is for routers and switches - at least that's the general industry belief, even if the company hasn't said so outright.

What Cisco has said is that it plans to develop management applications that leverage advanced instrumentation, as well as connect to systems-management software for optimising performance and troubleshooting. The goal, through intelligent hardware and virtualisation, is "to reduce complexity and enable greater synergy with system-management vendors, rather than less, by allowing users to see what's happening in the network," says Cliff Meltzer, senior vice president of Cisco's network management technology group.

Cisco's recent acquisition of Sheer Networks' abstraction software, which was used in part for the Network Application Performance Analysis (NAPA) product suite Cisco announced in December, is one manifestation of the company's management goals. Another is its Application-Oriented Network strategy. With initiatives such as these underway, Cisco will be able to manage diverse networks more easily, Meltzer contends.

But that's just the beginning of Cisco's management ambitions, industry watchers say. Many speculate that the vendor's long-term goals include providing a broad IT infrastructure-management platform for networks, storage and servers. With this platform, Cisco ultimately will go up against system-management stalwarts Computer Associates, HP and IBM, as well as today's rising stars in network management.

Interest vs scepticism
Interest in Cisco's management story is great, but scepticism is greater. Many industry watchers aren't so sure the powerhouse can translate its network hardware success to the management software market.

"From the Sheer acquisition, Cisco gets proven management software and technology that improves the interoperability between Cisco gear and systems-management vendors," says Robert Whiteley, analyst at Forrester Research. However, to lay the groundwork for its vision of holistic IT management, "Cisco must ensure that the interfaces for Sheer's technology evolve into true industry standards," he adds.

If Cisco does focus its strategy on open standards that will let users pick the best management tools, it will have huge market push, says Jim Hull, vice president of engineering services at MasterCard International. "People like me will say, 'Let me have three,'" he says.

But Cisco doesn't have the necessary influence in storage, servers or platforms, Hull says. "I don't see Cisco coming in and forcing others to comply when other industry giants, like IBM, EMC, Hitachi and Sun, for example, haven't been able to come together," he says, noting that MasterCard uses a blend of management tools and integrates where it can using Tivoli.

Today, many companies use a variety of management tools, but Hull says, "It's difficult to figure out where one starts and stops, and which ones have good APIs to feed into other tools." Better integration can save organisations much time, money and effort. More important, the bottom line for IT executives in managing technology is improving agility, which in turn enables IT organisations to adopt faster new technologies and services for enabling better business decisions.

Moving forward
As Cisco refashions its image as a software company, it faces several primary challenges. It must introduce innovative products, create the infrastructure to support a software-sales organisation and get corporate IT decision makers on board.

From the standpoint of credibility, Cisco has earned the ear of many of its customers. But that doesn't make the company's future in software a slam-dunk, says Michael Hunstein, manager of network services at Konica Minolta Business Solutions. "It can't come in at premium cost, which is often the case. It needs to provide a true value-add if users must displace existing solutions, and it must provide a more open solution," he says.

As Hull says, giving up the current capabilities of Tivoli for a Cisco- or network-centric approach is out of the question.

Cisco has tremendous network knowledge. But a move to encroach on the turf of the established systems-management vendors would be gutsy even for Cisco, many industry watchers say. "IBM, HP and CA already have management dashboards for systems, applications, business processes and policies that users can plug into and out of in an open manner," says Frank Dzubeck, president of Communication Network Architects.

Where's the self-management strategy?
Furthermore, the systems vendors are focusing on intelligent tools, software and systems to provide sophisticated management, Dzubeck says. "These vendors are saying you don't need an army to manage IT facilities," he adds, noting that Cisco hasn't articulated a strategy for self-management capabilities.

At a minimum, says Paul Scheib, director of IS operations at Children's Hospital Boston, he expects any Cisco management tool to provide real-time monitoring so he knows about problems before users come calling. "Ultimately, I want fast troubleshooting or a correlation of events on the network, applications and hardware," he says.

Midtier IT shops, such as Children's Hospital, want basic functionality in a tool set that's easy to support and not resource-intensive, Scheib says. That thinking is what led Scheib to EMC's Smarts for network monitoring and event-correlation notification. "We bought Smarts for its autodiscovery feature that enables the software to learn about the network as it changes," he says.

A better way
Intelligent software brings multiple benefits to the management mix. It provides automation, provisioning and standardisation across all vendor systems. Combined with best practices (ITIL processes, for example), it can address the business-driven part of IT management, and it enables the management of end-to-end services across diverse hardware and software components.

But intelligent hardware also is critical.

The network, considered by some industry watchers as the last bastion of complexity, is again in the management spotlight. The rise in real-time, network-centric applications - such as voice, video streaming and messaging - and storage and services for distributed applications is putting increased pressure on the WAN and therefore demands new management solutions.

"We're seeing hardware becoming commoditised and network complexity requiring better management tools," Forrester's Whiteley says.

Network management becomes core
With network management no longer a silo activity, and network metrics key to achieving a services-driven IT architecture, industry participants agree that intelligent hardware is key to the future of network management. Benefits of intelligent devices include faster reaction and resilience to hardware-related issues through self-management, savings on network resources and optimisation of hardware capability and performance.

Some users are surprised Cisco didn't take the initiative earlier to make its management structures more robust. Using as an example Cisco IP phones, which Children's Hospital uses, Scheib points out that the vendor is lagging. Its point products aren't mature, he says. "When it comes to wireless and IP voice, vendor support and management is still a wild card," he says.

Yankee's Hamilton adds, "Who wants to spend millions on Cisco IP phones and turn over management to a $10 or $20 million start-up?"

Cisco is taking a logical step by increasing element-management capability around its devices, says Bill Emmett, chief solutions manager at HP. Although he acknowledges that some competitive situations may arise as Cisco broadens its network-management capabilities, he says the vendor's efforts mostly complement what HP does with systems management. HP OpenView is about managing heterogeneous networks, he says, and HP's position is that intelligent hardware and software are needed in today's complex infrastructures.

In addition, corporate IT executives look at the bigger picture. "Customers want integration, a stable vendor and maturity in the IT-management industry," Emmett says.

As the battle for network management plays out, everyone agrees that competition can be a good thing (though neither CA or IBM would comment for this story). As Dzubeck says, "The lines are blurred, and one thing we can expect in the management area is that competition will be rampant."