For the first time, Cisco has assembled all of its software assets -- IOS, Unified Communications, Collaboration and Network Management -- under a single organisation. The Software Group was formed to co-ordinate product development and inject a common set of services across all of Cisco's software. Senior VP Don Proctor took some time at last week's C-Scape analyst conference to talk about Cisco's software plan.

Can you discuss your charter and what it means for Cisco?

We've always had a lot of software developers at Cisco. It's the bulk of what we do even though we're known as a hardware company. This is the first time we've brought all of the major software businesses together. The timing reflects the evolution of our business from being just a set of products to a real platform. I use that word carefully not to mean a platform for other Cisco engineers to build things on but a platform for our customers and partners also to build things on.

What are your priorities with the software group? What's the first order of business?

One very important thing we want to do is to share processes and practices and technology across the groups to make sure that we're continuing to meet our quality objectives. With respect to common services, making sure that when we implement, for example, an advanced signalling protocol or something that represents an advanced function in quality of service that it's implemented that same way in our applications, in our infrastructure services and in our operating system. So that customers can really get to the point where the provisioning of new services on the network is a less laborious process. The third thing is really co-ordinating some of the efforts we have across the company at building a third-party developer community, which includes IOS but also our unified communications suite and WebEx, which has been building its own ecosystem for the past couple of years.

How far up the software stack do you plan to go? Applications?

If you look at the portfolio today for the enterprise you'll see that we have solutions at every layer of the stack, all the way up to applications with our collaboration applications. What we're doing with some of the SaaS assets with WebEx is creating a new kind of information work space for the knowledge worker that allows them to build business mash-ups with the collaboration applications that we provide and the business applications provided by other suppliers.

How IT-centric does Cisco plan to play in the application space?

I think what we're really doing is investing in technologies that enable those kinds of applications. Six weeks or so ago, we announced a significant strategic alliance with Oracle -- Oracle CRM will be one of the premier applications featured on our WebEx Connect offer as it goes through its beta process and moves into commercial availability early next year.

What about systems management? It seems like Cisco is evolving more into an IT operations or infrastructure company.

I haven't, to be honest, thought about it that way; although there are a couple of places in which we are making investments. [Acquired company] Securent . . . [is] an enterprise policy-management company. The whole notion of taking policy -- something that's very laborious and siloed today in most enterprises -- and changing it into a network service where it can support not only Cisco applications but also other business applications is pretty exciting.

Do you expect to compete with your data centre or IT software partners more as you climb the stack?

I can't think of an instance in which we would be on more of a competitive path with our data centre partners. We made a few acquisitions in the last year in addition to some internal development that do take us into new areas of storage management, system management, virtualisation technologies and so forth.

There's been some speculation that Cisco might make a major software acquisition to fill out its "network as the IT platform" vision. Can you address that?

WebEx was a pretty big chink for us. When we did the WebEx acquisition we had the same kind of questions -- is this kind of software business really consistent with your strategy? We saw that it was a really great opportunity. What's interesting to me about WebEx is that in addition to having a great product, they've got a business model that our customers are just absolutely ecstatic about. The notion of being able to subscribe to a collaboration service ... has just been a tremendous surge over the past year or so.

What do the changes to IOS -- opening up interfaces to developers, running it on Unix -- mean for customers?

If there's a general trend through all of our software businesses, what you're seeing is more and more extensibility, so that third parties, including our customers, can add value to the software. It's happening at the application layer with WebEx, it's happening at the infrastructure layer with our unified communications portfolio, and it's happening at the operating system layer with IOS. Componentisation and running on Unix-based microkernels are not new programs, per se; we've had different versions of IOS with some of those attributes in the past. But the notion going forward is that to the extent that we can modularise the services that will give customers more flexibility in turning up these services, in how they upgrade, in how they add new services to the network, and really simplify the process of running what are today in some cases very large, complex enterprise networks.

It's work that we're actively engaged in now. I don't think we've talked publicly about a time frame for commercial availability yet.

How significant of a change is that for Cisco's traditional IOS strategy?

It's a significant step forward for us. What it means is that over time customers will be able to take better advantage of the intelligence we're providing in the network. The common theme here is that we're really looking for ways to help customers take better advantage of some of the advanced functionality we provide in our network solutions today. Software turns out to be a key way that we can do what John [Chambers] has been talking about for some time, which is link business architecture to technology architecture in a meaningful way. All the talk that we're doing about collaboration today just represents one very strong pillar in that strategy. Collaboration turns out to be a pretty direct route to improving a whole variety of different kinds of business processes.

How important is it that you develop an ecosystem comparable to what Microsoft has for Windows?

We have an ecosystem that we've been developing over the past six or seven years of developers who have built some very innovative applications on our platform. A lot of them are vertical applications -- unified communications systems for healthcare or for government or for retail. And we've learned that there's just an incredible amount of innovation that happens when you begin to open up your interfaces and provide good documentation, developer kits and supporting that community. What you'll see us do over the next couple of years is take that to the next level and increase . . . our focus in enabling others to build businesses on the products and solutions that we build. If you look at the WebEx Connect ecosystems, these are not the traditional kind of shrink-wrapped software developers that you would see represented today in most of the large software ecosystems. These tend to be very much Web 2.0-oriented developers. A lot of them are in developing countries where there's an incredible amount of innovation, there is great technology but they have no way to take their products to market and to monetise the business. And what we can help do for that community is complete the business model by giving them a vehicle to reach customers and a mechanism for monetising their software.

How do you determine which software services belong in the network vs. at a higher level in the IT infrastructure?

Over time, there's a general progression of services from the application layer, through middleware and into the fabric of the network. Multicast started as an application running on servers, it migrated over time into the network and is now part of the network fabric. Firewalling is another technology that started as a stand-alone application that's now integrated in with the network. What you're seeing now is other services following that same path. Presence, for example: When presence is locked inside an application it only provides value to other users of that application. There's a huge amount of benefit to being able to bring presence into the network and make it a more universal service that enables multiple different applications. So I can see from my IM screen whether or not my colleague is on the phone and able to take a call. Being able to move presence from the application layer down into the services layer and maybe even ultimately into the network layer provides tremendous value. Policy is another service that for the most part today is locked up inside of applications, but customers already perceive tremendous benefit in unlocking it from those applications and moving it into the network platform where all of their applications can take advantage of that service.

And as you do this, you don't see a collision with your software application partners?

For the most part no. When we did the Securent acquisition I didn't receive a single phone call saying, "Hey, this is something really that we want to focus on." I think for the most part our partners see that we can help add value to their applications by providing services that can help link them to other applications in the enterprise.

Network management has always been a challenge for Cisco or any company that acquires 15 other companies a year. Is getting a consistent management interface across all your devices and applications a high priority?

The simple answer is yes, it is a very high priority. I was a Cisco customer for many years before I joined the company in 1995 and I used to complain about Cisco's network management in those days. But my experience running the voice business over the past several years has been night and day. If you look at our unified communications portfolio we have the most complete portfolio of provisioning, management, monitoring . . . the whole management stack. It's been provided by Cisco delivered as part of the solution with every release of our unified communication system. That's the pace we want to set. That's the kind of model that will expand into other areas of the business. We did an acquisition last year of a company called Sheer Networks. This is providing a lot of functionality on the service provider side which is very broad in terms of service management in service provider networks. One of the key things that Sheer provides is event correlation, one of the hardest problems to solve in the network management world. We're seeing great traction with that technology in the market today.