Cisco: Taking businesses from the ground to the cloud

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The cloud is not a destination; cloud is an operating model. This is according to Tjerk Bijlsma, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Cisco’s cloud practice offerings for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia. He says while most people are familiar with the cloud for data storage, there is much more to it than this. 

Cloud computing is generally defined as the on-demand availability of computer system resources, especially data storage and computing power, without direct active management by the user. Large clouds carry the benefit of having functions distributed over multiple locations. “When we wrap our heads around the fact that a cloud is not a destination, then we can tap into its possibilities,” he explains. 

This, he says, is where Cisco has a role to play: “We look at what set of capabilities, tools, products and solutions we can bring to market to help customers in South Africa who want to leverage the cloud to run or host applications that benefit their customers. We ask what we can do to make it easier and optimise functionality and client offerings.” 

The cloud isn’t the abstract concept most people believe it to be. “We have public clouds, driven by the hyperscalers, but when it comes down to the basics, they are still physical data centres — you can actually drive up to where they are, and while they might be bigger, they still look and feel like your company’s own data centre,” he says. “It’s a building, possibly with a big fence around it, and it’s surrounded by cooling towers; you can drive up to the gate and ring the bell.” Suddenly, standing at the entrance of the building, the word “cloud” falls away. “That’s because the cloud isn’t this magical thing or this mythical place; it’s a term we use to describe how systems are operated, not where.”  

The move to cloud-based operations is evident in the way companies are run today: “Five or 10 years ago, IT was in control, and the IT department would decide which infrastructure to purchase, which software to use and which applications to run; if a software team developed their own applications, it was IT that decided which programming language would be used and what tools should be employed. Everything was centrally controlled and delivered at a certain pace: if a company wanted to release an application ahead of a big holiday or special event, then planning would need to start at least six months in advance.” 

But, he says, the world has changed, and businesses have had to change with it or risk being left behind. “The tables have turned, and now the biggest customer of the IT department is the software developers, who dictate what they need, how they want it delivered and when they require it. “If IT can’t deliver, then they will go elsewhere, because there are more than enough service providers who can comply.” This, he says, means that operating teams for applications, for infrastructure, and for security need to get aligned to this new, faster and more agile way of working. 

Bijlsma says businesses are also employing more multi-cloud solutions: “The reality we’re seeing is that customers are selecting a primary cloud, which could be either private or public, but that doesn’t mean they are not using other clouds from other parties — either the hyperscalers or partners that are locally present in South Africa and have operational capabilities and hosting capabilities that add value by delivering what the customer deems relevant.”  

In practice, he says, this could mean that developers have access to a certain cloud that has a set of functionalities that serve them, but that once production starts, the application is deployed on a different cloud that perhaps has better capabilities for data sovereignty and compliance reporting. If the application deals with sensitive information, for example a healthcare app, then the data might be hosted in a private environment with a local partner. “So now we start to distribute the application across multiple clouds; and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, because this is going to be application specific, customer specific and based on how the applications are deployed and the regulations interpreted within a specific market segment.” 

Cisco, however, is not in the business of hosting customer applications. “Instead we are a cloud-agnostic vendor that provides software solutions to ensure that customers have a consistent operating model across multiple clouds — a hybrid cloud, if you will,” he says. 

“Agnostic software solutions means that operationally, it doesn’t matter where the application runs, it doesn’t matter which cloud you make use of; you will operate it in an identical way, because we provide that abstraction layer across multiple clouds.” 

This, he says, is also true of security: instead of having cloud-specific security for each system, Cisco provides consistent security across the clouds. “It’s simple with security, he explains. “The more you see the more you can solve, so it makes sense to have a view across all the clouds and be able to address all the threats for all the different clouds in a consistent way.” 

Multi-cloud security solutions have also improved, with the aim to make systems more user friendly and less of a chore to access. “From a security perspective, I get it; nobody likes security and nobody enjoys wasting time putting in complex passwords with 20 characters and symbols — especially not when these passwords need to be changed monthly,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons that the security of the future is passwordless and grounded in biometrics.”

Everyone knows that security is key, especially as more of the world goes digital, but people remain the weakest link in most secure systems. “The moment you have a password someone will be writing it down on a piece of paper to remember it,” Bijlsma laughs. “Ideally there would be single sign-on and no passwords to bother with.” Improving the ease of access is one way to get employees to buy into necessary security measures; people invest in processes that save time and require less effort. “It’s all about striking the right balance,” he explains. 

This, he adds, is extremely important and increasingly valuable for businesses. “The way we see our role is as a cloud-agnostic player that makes sure that you get the most out of all the clouds that you’re using.” 

As simple as that sounds, this is no mean feat: “The amount of work that goes into building these platforms and increasing their ease of operations is tremendous. The amount of progress that has been made in just the past two or three years is truly amazing, and the acceleration of the development cycles — the things people don’t see happening behind the scenes — is mind-boggling.”

One more thing that Bijlsma and his teams at Cisco are incredibly excited about is sustainability: “In the near future we’re going to see companies make business decisions and build partnerships on the sustainability metrics that vendors provide. When it comes down to a choice between two clouds or two solutions, businesses are increasingly going to go with the one with more sustainable practises. They might be slightly more expensive, but if their sustainability is better, then you would rather partner with that company. Sustainability is going to be a big driver and have an immense impact on how physical data centres are being built, how they are being cooled, the equipment that is being used and the lifecycle of that equipment. This is a heavy push that we’re seeing across the globe.” 

Businesses may not see the value yet, says Bijlsma, but these companies then risk being left behind as the world changes. “Every business is going to have to make a choice where they weigh up the costs against the business relevance and the opportunities on offer,” he explains. “You need to see the value of the new tools that are out there, and how they enrich the entire business process and experience; the moment you can see that then the investment is really a no-brainer.” 

He says the advancements in this space are something to get excited about. “Things are getting better, processes are getting faster, and we have better insights into how these infrastructures operate; this will give rise to self-healing networks.” This means that if an individual user is having a negative experience, the system can adjust and improve dynamically, with increasingly accurate predictions to preempt challenges that may arise.

The silver lining to cloud challenges

The benefits of taking your business onto the cloud are plentiful — from reduced business costs and increased business continuity to improved scalability, collaboration efficiency, flexibility and access to automatic system updates. 

Cisco’s Chief Technology Officer, Tjerk Bijlsma, says the silver lining is evident, but unfortunately there is also a downside. Many of the challenges in this space are related to compliance and government regulation: “What we’re seeing is a push to add sovereignty issues and their impact to the cloud conversation.” 

He says that if countries start pushing their own agendas and specifying localisation of industry and operation then the concept of cloud and economics of scale that make it so appealing as an operating model will be lost. “Suddenly the cost of everything will skyrocket,” he explains. For example, if South Africa were to suddenly specify that data centres cannot be managed from the United States, then many of the service offerings from the hyperscalers would be lost to the local market.  

“The operating model and concepts that underlie it are fantastic, and so are the technology and tech developments, but we are also seeing a very real need for rules and regulations — and a push for more control — when it comes to privacy and data sharing,” says Bijlsma. “There is therefore also a need to find a way to work with and through the regulations that are being implemented by a number of countries globally.”  

These regulations are something that Bijlsma predicts will only get more stringent over time. Cisco and its teams are, however, ready to consult with businesses to find the best cloud solutions for their unique environment and context, carefully weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of the various options available to ensure optimal functionality — today and into the future. 

Invest in these five multi-cloud enablers

Tjerk Bijlsma, CTO for Cisco’s cloud practice offerings for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia says here are five multi-cloud enablers that customers should be investing in. “These five enablers are easy to remember, because they spell out CISCO,” he laughs. “But functionally, these five domains cover the bulk of what we do, and that’s the important thing to remember when it comes to cloud-based operations and how to leverage the best functionalities to address broad and individual needs.”

Continuity, Insights, Security, Connectivity, Operate

Continuity: “This layer is hybrid-work orientated, incorporating both work from home and work from the office,” he explains. This is about the infrastructure where the users work from and where they connect to applications. “Even as people start returning to the office, that space will have changed. ”  The nature of meetings, and the spaces that meetings take place in, has shifted over the course of the pandemic — gone are the days when all participants will be present in the same room and not a single attendee will be joining remotely. “This means that our physical spaces will have to change too, from a meeting room towards more of a collaboration room.”  

He says a boardroom table, a laptop that plugs into a projector and a physical audience is a scenario of the past. “A collaboration room needs to be set up with equipment and infrastructure that allows the remote participants to feel as if they’re there, and this means that every single meeting room and every single company’s business operations is going to need to change.” But, he says, these changes come with massive opportunities. “I have a high-end 4k video system on my desk at home, and we have high-end video collaboration boards that have speaker tracking. This means if you have a group and one person speaks then the camera zooms in on that person without needing to be manually controlled. This dramatically increases the experience of remote attendees.” Collaborative platforms, which speak to continuity, are the new reality. 

One example of this, says Bijlsma, is that while multiple meeting platforms exist, you will want the experience to participate in meetings with any platform, without having to purchase subscriptions to them. “My video endpoint I have at home (and that we are using for this interview) is a Cisco Webex DeskPro unit, and I use it to collaborate with customers who are using Cisco Webex or other collaboration platforms. The experience for me is seamless and from my one device, I get a green ‘join’ button at the right time that I touch. And then the Webex platform figures out which collaboration platform I’m joining a call on. It’s completely transparent to me as the end user, and delivers an experience that matters to customers. That is the path we are on: making the collaboration experience consistent in a world where interoperability will be a differentiator. Continuity, in this sense, is all about integration.”

Insights: Bijlsma says the next layer to  focus on in insights, which has to do with optimising the app experience. “This simply means asking, how we can ensure that the end user or the consumer of the application has a fantastic experience?” 

Many businesses still do not track experience, he explains: “They track things such as performance, latency and outages, but not experience, because it’s seen as this abstract, non-tangible thing. If people have a bad experience, however, they’re going to go away and it will impact the business.” For this reason tracking the user experience throughout the application through the infrastructure and through the network is a critical aspect to invest in. “One of the things we’ve done is come to market with a solution that we’re calling ‘full stack observability’ to give companies insights into the application,  infrastructure and network  work in relation to the users’ experience and take actions where needed.” 

The network tracking is particularly relevant as more companies shift to remote work. “The internet has become more prevalent to directly connect from branches to clouds to applications, and many companies are using networks that aren’t theirs.” For example, if you’re working from home, you’re connected to the internet, but the network that you’re using is not your own. “Despite this, it would be useful to get visibility on how that network is performing and how it’s impacting your business, because your business depends on that network. Through our ThousandEyes solution Cisco is able to give companies that visibility, even when they do not own the network they are using.”

Security: When applications can run anywhere (distributed across clouds) and users can work from anywhere, security has to be comprehensive and cover the Workforce, the Workplace and the Workload. Security is a domain where scale matters, where the more you see the more you can protect. 

We built Cisco SecureX,  a cloud native, SaaS delivered platform to bring together all of the different security operations team to do threat detection and remediation leveraging the power of a wide range of Cisco and third party security solutions. This drastically simplifies the way security operations have been operating.

Connectivity: If you have 50 sites across the country that now have direct internet access, how can new architectures help secure those 50 sites. That is where Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) some into play. Cloud delivered security and connectivity. 

Operating across the clouds: “Delivering a consistent cloud-agnostic operating model is what this final multi-cloud enabler is all about. Several years ago, we embarked on a journey to deliver our customers a cloud native, SaaS delivered hybrid cloud platform to monitor, configure and optimize a customer’s environments. It is called Cisco Intersight.

“Some companies have departments that manage the management tools” he said with a smile. “You really get an appreciation of a cloud delivered SaaS platform when it is just always there, it is always up to date. You do not spend time managing the management tools, you let the tools work for you.”

The interview isn’t long enough to go into depth of everything Intersight can do but it is clear that this is a topic that is exciting to Bijlsma. 

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