Cisco has embarked on yet another new direction. Forget directory enabled networks and intelligent networks and step aside for Application Oriented Networks.

It is, says Cisco, its first move into the messaging middleware business with a new "AON" business unit. Along with it comes a number of technical relationships - most notably IBM - and products that are intended to add more intelligence to the network. This will better equip the network to understand business-application communications and so support more effective business decisions, according to the grand plan.

"AON is a new technology direction for Cisco as well as a new product offering," said Stephen Cho, senior director for product management in the new unit. AON is a network-embedded intelligent message routing system that integrates application message-level communication, visibility, and security into the fabric of the network.

The new group will roll out its first products later this year. Initial offerings will be a branch-office router and a blade that can be used with Cisco switches. Eventually, the company will add a standalone AON device and a branch-office router that connects to SAP applications, Cho said.

The AON products will be about the size of a hardback book, he added. Pricing will be announced later this summer.

Cisco is also bringing aboard third-party providers to build add-ons. IBM and Tibco Software will participate in the middleware space. Although it may look as if Cisco's AON and IBM's Websphere products would compete, IBM officials swear the collaboration between the two will work to the customer's benefit as their goal is to create stronger integration between Websphere and a number of network infrastructure layers by simplifying the IT infrastructure, reducing complexity and the total cost of ownership.

"Adding intelligent application message handling to the network enables applications and the network to work together as an integrated system," said Taf Anthias, general manager of the AON business unit. "It makes sense for us to collaborate on this initiative with IBM, given IBM's position in the application integration middleware market."

SAP has also signed up to integrate AON and Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA) with its Business One software. "By combining ESA and AON with SAP Business One, we will have the ability to deliver significant customer benefits for parent companies and their subsidiaries, such as improved application security, easier application deployment and even better integration, better business visibility, and network-based policy management," said George Paolini, VP for platform eco-system development at SAP.

Other partners include: Actional, ConnecTerra, Contivo, CXO, EDS, Infogain, ManTech, SAIC, Trace Financial, TransAct Tools, and Verisign. "We expect to have other partners to announce as well," Cho said.

IT analysts said Cisco's move into more middleware-type products made sense. "The nature of the enterprise network is evolving from a low-function communication service to a high-function enterprise nervous system (ENS)," said Roy Schulte, a vice president and research fellow at Gartner. "This is changing application design and IT-management practices in fundamental ways. In a conventional architecture, intelligent application systems interact through a low-function, fairly 'dumb' network," he said.