Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins: Moving Fast To Win The AI Battle

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins says the company is seizing the AI high ground with a big data AI-enabled security and observability advantage that rivals can’t match.

As the AI revolution rocks the IT market, Cisco Systems Chair and CEO Chuck Robbins is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. When the cloud computing market transition reshaped the competitive landscape in the mid-2000s, networking market leader Cisco was caught flat-footed, according to Robbins.

That’s not the case with AI.

Cisco—supercharged by its $28 billion Splunk acquisition, which closed in March—is primed to seize the high ground in the battle for AI supremacy with a big data AI-enabled security and observability advantage that no competitor can match, Robbins said in an exclusive interview with CRN.

“We’re just trying to move fast,” he said. “I think that the thing I would say is that if you look back at the original cloud transition, I think Cisco was ill-prepared for that and didn’t handle it very well. And in this case, I think we’re super well-positioned.”

Solution providers and customers will see early fruits of the Cisco-Splunk integration in products as quickly as the RSA Conference in May, with even more to come in June at the Cisco Live and Splunk .conf24 user conferences, Robbins said.

The innovation wave will build on what Robbins calls the “three big pillars” of Cisco’s AI vision. That includes, first, the fundamental infrastructure on which web-scale and enterprise customers can run large language models and advanced AI workloads; second, the transition of Cisco’s product interfaces to operate in natural language via AI-enabled assistants; and then, third, enabling customers to use AI to tap into the massive data sets available through Cisco and Splunk products. That will result in a stronger defense and remediation strategy for security threats and better application performance.

Underpinning that vision are several technology plays, including the San Jose, Calif.-based company’s Silicon One scalable networking architecture for powering large AI workloads, as well as its expanded partnership with Nvidia, unveiled in February, in which the two companies are building AI infrastructure offerings for the data center. The partnership brings together Cisco’s Ethernet networking prowess with Nvidia’s extensive expertise in GPUs and AI hardware and software.

In addition, Cisco has introduced a handful of AI Assistants baked into some of its products, including AI Assistant for Webex and AI Assistant for Cisco Firewall, which employ natural language to make it easier for users to make changes or deploy new policy rules.

Cisco partners also have an important role to play in its AI odyssey. The company is prepping the launch of a new dedicated AI specialization track planned for later this year as well as adding AI-focused elements into its existing partner specializations.

Robbins also sees a big opening to expand Splunk’s partner strategy.

“They don’t have as robust a channel presence and channel programs as they think they should, so we think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” Robbins said.

As Cisco begins to integrate its newest acquisition, it is keeping an eye on the threat posed by Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s pending $14 billion acquisition of Juniper Networks, known for its strength in AI networking with its Mist platform.

But Robbins said HPE-Juniper cannot match Cisco’s AI prowess and simply comes up short when it comes to security.

“At the end of the day, customers care about high-performance, secure network infrastructure,” said Robbins. “That’s what they care about. And we’re applying AI to networking data as well. So I think the thing that’s missing there [with HPE-Juniper] is security. With the Splunk acquisition, we just improved our position in the security world. So customers who want to run platform-based, secure networking infrastructure, we’re going to have the right answer. And I bet if you ask the customer, ‘If you had to prioritize security or some AI-driven dashboard …,’ they’re going to choose security all day long. And I think that’s the big differentiation that we have.”

Expected to close late this year or early next year, the HPE Juniper mashup faces “product overlap issues” with portfolios that need to be rationalized, which will “probably present opportunity for us in the near term,” Robbins said.

As Cisco takes the next steps following the Splunk acquisition, said Robbins, the AI “insight and recommendation” benefits of capturing data from customers who are providing telemetry back to Cisco are going to become clearer and clearer.

“We can do that, again, at a scale no other competitor can do,” he said. “And when you have that kind of data with customers, you can get better information, better recommendations and better insights. And I think that’s the big differentiator.”

In addition to the pressures from HPE-Juniper, Cisco’s AI offensive comes with the company in February saying that it was laying off 5 percent of its workforce, or 4,250 employees, in the wake of a 12 percent decline in second-quarter networking revenue year over year. Two days later, Cisco informed Executive Vice President and COO Maria Martinez, a six-year Cisco veteran, that her position had been “eliminated.” And on March 5, Robbins said in a blog post that the company was making changes to its executive leadership team to “accelerate our innovation, drive greater simplicity and double down on our growth efforts.”

In another sign of the Cisco times, just three weeks later, Robbins moved Eyal Dagan, who has led the company’s Common Hardware Group since 2020, into a new position as head of strategic products, and hired former Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Telco, AIOps and Private 5G Martin Lund as the new head of the group, which delivers silicon, hardware systems and optics for Cisco’s switching, routing, optical, cable access and IoT portfolios.

Meanwhile, Robbins’ old boss, former Cisco CEO John Chambers, in a recent LinkedIn post embraced HPE President and CEO Antonio Neri’s bid to make HPE-Juniper Networks a force to be reckoned with in the AI era. “I believe HPE will become a top AI leader in the industry with [Neri] at the helm,” Chambers said.

Partners Expect Big Benefits From Cisco-Splunk Combination

Despite those challenges, many solution providers are bullish on their AI prospects with Cisco-Splunk.

World Wide Technology, the $17 billion solution provider behemoth, for example, is banking on Cisco and Splunk to drive AI growth.

Cisco, in fact, has a big presence in WWT’s Advanced Technology Center, which gives customers access to the latest AI hardware and software reference architectures.

St. Louis-based WWT is eager to showcase in its lab environment the benefits of integrating the Splunk Enterprise Security SIEM (security information and event management) offering with Cisco’s security and observability tools. That combination will provide unfettered access to an unprecedented amount of networking data, said Chris Konrad, vice president of global cyber for WWT, which has annual Cisco sales totaling more than $7 billion.

If done correctly, that’s where Cisco stands to become an AI market leader, Konrad said.

“That’s what makes us really excited from a partner standpoint—pulling all of this into our AI proving ground,” said Konrad, whose company is spending $500 million over the next three years to buildout the AI capabilities on display in its Advanced Technology Center. “WWT is already a Splunk partner, but the combined company will give Cisco and its partners the ability to be better together.”

Konrad also touted Cisco’s dedication to security and AI.

“I know I’ve never seen in my career Cisco as committed to security and, more recently, [as] committed to AI,” he said.

With Cisco and Splunk each as market leaders in their own right with complementary capabilities, customers will benefit “pretty much immediately” because of the various security insight across the network provided by the combination, Konrad said.

“To me, once you combine everything from Splunk and then everything [Cisco] is doing with things like AppDynamics, ThousandEyes and the millions of AnyConnect licenses, it’s a pretty powerful story, and it’s going to be hard for other companies to catch up with,” he said, referencing Cisco’s observability, digital experience monitoring and VPN products.

But despite leading with security and observability, Konrad doesn’t believe that Cisco is taking its eye off the networking ball. The tech giant is the dominant networking player in terms of market share, and “everyone else” is playing catch-up, he said.

“I think they’re really rotating hard to be able to get their fair share of the security market because they’ve been behind over the years. I still think they could be the largest security company in the world … but the window was closing on them. With the convergence of network and security now at an all-time high, they have to put themselves in the right position,” Konrad said.

There’s no denying that security is Cisco’s new tailwind, and partners are hearing the message loud and clear: Go take security head on, said Salim Gheewalla, vice president of marketing and alliances for Ottawa-based MSP giant Calian IT & Cyber Solutions.

“If you look at where Cisco’s been, they’ve got endpoint, network, identity, firewall, they’ve got cloud and everything else. The two things that were missing out of their puzzle was a centralized SIEM and SOAR [security orchestration, automation and response] … which will be capabilities they get from Splunk,” he said.

It all boils down to how Cisco integrates Splunk, he said.

“If they bring it into the core of their MDR/XDR [managed detection and response/extended detection and response] product line, now they’ve got a full product offering across the board ifthey integrate it correctly. We can literally build an MSSP offering on this model,” Gheewalla said.

Data As A Differentiator

Although Cisco began employing machine learning in 2017, Cisco Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Experience Officer Liz Centoni denotes 2019 as the start of the company’s AI journey because of the capabilities that emerged within its networking and security portfolios.

What makes Cisco’s AI strategy stand out in the crowded networking arena, according to Centoni—who spoke to CRN in February in her then-role as executive vice president and general manager of applications and chief strategy officer—is its sheer amount of data.

The Cisco Meraki platform connects more than 350 million endpoints every day, for example, while Cisco’s IoT Contro lCenter platform sees more than 200 million connections, she said. The number of security events that Cisco observes goes into the hundreds of billions with 625 billion daily web requests, she said.

“If you look at the breadth of the data that we have access to—secure networking telemetry data, security data, observability data … it differentiates us because it gives us the opportunity to derive new use cases of key value that are much harder for a lot of peers in the industry to do as well.”

Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, said that Splunk is bringing a huge influx of data and AI capabilities to the Cisco security platform.

“The thesis around Splunk is very simple—in order to be a world-class networking company, you also have to be a world-class security company. In order to be a world-class security company, you have to deal with these breaches at machine scale, not at human scale,” Patel said. “And in order to deal with [breaches]at machine scale, you have to be really good at AI. And you can’t be good at AI if you’re not good at data. And Splunk provides us a massive data platform.”

The data that Cisco has access to is the company’s secret weapon that every other competitor is fighting for, said Calian’s Gheewalla.

“They have all this data sitting on network infrastructure, network endpoints, identity, firewall—these are all things Cisco sells and delivers today that they now have access to for building their learning models for AI,” he said. “Now, what they do with the data—do they have the brainpower to bring it together and deliver on it?”

The HPE-Juniper Threat

HPE’s Neri says the HPE-Juniper combination is aimed at disrupting the networking “status quo” with a modern AI-driven networking fabric that will radically change the networking industry. He called the Splunk acquisition a “totally different thing” compared with HPE’s AI strategy.

What’s more, Neri said, Cisco does not have an answer to HPE’ s Slingshot interconnect fabric, which is central to building a modern AI driven network fabric.

“Cisco does not have a Slingshot equivalent,” he said. “They have obviously a very strong data center portfolio, but they don’t have a strong AI-driven interconnect fabric. The only two available today are HPE Slingshot and Nvidia, which is the [Nvidia] DGX [Systems] cluster. So my goal is to take HPE Slingshot plus Juniper, converge the network and have one integrated modern data center architecture. … They have decided to invest in Splunk, but that is a totally different thing. They use AI for managing the SIEM, but it does not help you with the deployment of infrastructure to manage these large environments.”

Cisco’s Centoni said partners can position themselves and Cisco against the presumably strong AI story that a combined HPE-Juniper will have by leading with Cisco’s ability to serve up the information that businesses need to make decisions based on Cisco’s vast data feeds.

“[Having those] integrated capabilities provide more richness[and] a better user experience. I think that’s something that neither a Juniper nor an HPE can offer,” Centoni said.

Cisco has already moved to arm channel partners for the coming HPE-Juniper battle.

“No. 1 is to understand exactly from a competitive perspective what those added capabilities are, and so we’ve done quite a bit of assessment on [that] and we’ve incorporated that into our training and enablement so that from a competitive perspective our partners are prepared to have those conversations,” said Alex Pujols, vice president of global partner engineering at Cisco.

Pujols also pointed to the vast Cisco installed base and its technical capabilities, including AI-focused product announcements made at Cisco Live events in February and last June around Cisco Security Cloud.

“With the combination of partnerships and the technical capabilities that we have in the products, we feel that that’s going to give our partners a pretty solid edge,” Pujols said.

While the HPE-Juniper deal will undoubtedly impact the AI-based networking space and drive other networking vendors to rethink how modern networks are designed, Cisco has already been at work injecting its networking telemetry data into other areas of the business, including within its security, observability and collaboration platforms, which will serve as a valuable differentiator for its AI strategy, said Lee Waskevich, vice president, strategy, security and networking for solution provider giant and Cisco partner ePlus.

“All those touchpoints become critical, especially when you’re using AI to help in making more proactive decisions or helping to augment those various workflows,” Waskevich said.

Which vendors ultimately find success with AI will be heavily dependent on data. The customers that have unsuccessful AI projects in the works right now are failing because of problems with data or data access, Waskevich said.

“If for some reason that data faucet got turned off [on AI vendors] tomorrow, they could have a great AI tool, but if it’s not being fed with new and constant telemetry, they’re going to start to lose out. The amount and quality of data is critical to success,” he said.

AI-focused acquisitions are just starting to crop up, and the winners of the AI race won’t be the companies that make these deals the fastest, but rather the companies that do the best job on the integration to ensure access to the data that’s needed, when and where it’s needed, said Justin Mescher, vice president of cloud solutions for Herndon, Va.-based ePlus.

“The winners of that race are going to be those who integrate the most seamlessly and efficiently. You can buy the best technology company in the world, but if you don’t integrate it the right way the vision won’t come to fruition,” he said.

The AI Opportunity For Partners

According to Cisco’s AI Readiness Index published in November that surveyed more than 8,000 global companies, 84 percent of respondents believe AI will have a significant or very significant impact on their business. However, there is a sizable gap between businesses that recognize the importance of AI and those that are prepared.

The survey found that only 14 percent of organizations worldwide are “fully ready” to integrate AI into their business. And it’s a race against time, as 61 percent of respondents said they believe they have a maximum of one year to deploy their AI strategy or else it will have a negative impact on business.

The statistics highlight how imperative it is for partners to have a road map and one comprehensive AI story from Cisco, solution providers said.

“With AI, like any of the trends we’ve seen over the past years, everyone has their own flavor. What we need as partners is for Cisco to understand our story as much as we understand theirs so that when we do go to market together, we look more joined as opposed to two separate entities,” ePlus’ Mescher said.

Rodney Clark, senior vice president of partnerships and small and medium business for Cisco, who joined the company as its new channel chief in January, said that Cisco is in a unique position in the AI market to reward partner investment.

“Our [competitive position] in the industry is magnified because we’re across networking, collaboration, security services, [etc.]When I look across that portfolio to help our partners make that natural connection on where they should invest, what we see is when partners invest with us [and] have more than two or three solutions, they’re growing, on average, 12 percent faster than those who do not,” he said.

Clark’s job right now is to build a set of capabilities that lets partners grow in the natural areas they already have core competencies in and then evolve Cisco’s partner program to support partners who can translate their capabilities into AI services.

“The jumping-off point for our partners is always where they have a core set of strengths and investment already,” Clark said. “Because we’ve been so invested in AI across our portfolio, it really gives just about every partner in our ecosystem a very logical point to jump in,” he said.

To help Cisco on its AI offensive by driving growth through partners, who contribute to approximately 90 percent of Cisco’s overall bookings, Clark and his team are creating the new AI specialization for partners that extends all the way from silicon to software, and ultimately into the company’s security offerings.

“Cisco has been focused on AI for years, and it is a key part and an important part of our product portfolio—it’s how we build products—and we’ve incorporated AI into just about all and everything that we do,” Clark said. “We’re at a point now where we want to, based on customer feedback, arm our partners with specialization around AI. You’ll hear more from us as time evolves over the next several months, but it’s an area of focus for us.”

Also in the works are several AI-related Cisco Partner Journeys, a digital experience that connects partners to tools, services, programs and offerings to help accelerate sales, build practices and enhance profitability, Clark said.

In this moment of rapid acceleration, the Cisco Partner Organization needs to evaluate how it’s compensating and incentivizing its partners and if it aligns with the outcomes customers want while paying out on the outcomes that will grow Cisco’s business, Clark said.

“Based on the addressable markets across all areas, AI included, are we really focused on accelerating the right areas? Do we have the right journeys mapped out for our partners coming into our programs? That’s something that we look at every day, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

Cisco already has in place the infrastructure, breadth and scale of data across its vast portfolio to power AI, as well as the ability to secure AI, three important elements for partners positioning Cisco as a potential AI solution to customers, Clark said.

“The fact that we’ve been deploying AI at scale, and we’ve been our own customer for years, lends a lot of credibility,” he said. “Our job now is to just go and talk about how we frame AI and how we think about it.”

Cisco partners are putting a lot of thought into AI as well.

Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider and Cisco partner Trace3has created a Center of AI consulting arm with the purpose of guiding its customers through their AI journeys, said Steve Wylie, senior vice president and general manager, East Majors, for Trace3.

“You really can’t talk to anybody today without AI being part of the conversation,” he said. “Just like everyone else, we’re figuring it out too. For us, it’s about helping clients understand what AI is and how it truly can help them solve a particular business need. AI is the latest buzzword, but we’re trying to help clients get down to the meat of it and what they can actually do with it in a responsible way.”

A successful AI application builds a connection between security, data and the network so that information can be shared in real time, Wylie said.

“From Cisco’s perspective, they have so many touchpoints in the data center, campus network and in collaboration. [Other vendors] don’t have as many elements that they can touch,” he said. “Splunk has all these touchpoints at the application layer of the network. Splunk is probably one of the most known tools in their space, and you bring that together with Cisco’s touchpoints—I think it just gives them a leg up on solving business problems,” he said.

Cisco’s track record of research and development along with the monster Splunk acquisition highlight the fact that Cisco is betting big on AI, he said.

But while vendors are busy building AI platforms, tools and capabilities, solution providers will always be critical in the consultancy and services stage to help customers successfully deploy AI, Wylie said.

“Our core competency is the services side. For all of this to work together, you’ve got to have people that that’s what they live and breathe,” Wylie said. “Where Cisco is going to truly have success in AI is by working with strong partners and strong consulting organizations that are able to stitch all of this together.”

While Cisco stands to play a big role, solution providers will be tasked with incorporating multiple pieces of the AI pie, Wylie said.

“The reality of this world is it’s not going to ever be just a Cisco and Splunk thing,” Wylie said. “For someone to truly be successful with AI, you’re stitching solutions across multiple OEMs to help customers achieve what they’re trying to achieve.”

Cisco’s AI Differentiation

Cisco’s strategy of “doubling down” on AI within its security and observability units will differentiate its AI stance, said Lane Irvine, network business solutions director for Cisco partner Long View Systems, a Calgary, Alberta-based MSP.

“There’s an opportunity for AI to provide a lot of enhancements and create a better experience. I think that’s really how Cisco is using AI to be more competitive,” he said. “For partners, the incentive there is obvious in that we’re going be able to sell more because we’ve got a differentiated solution over the competition.”

Now post-acquisition, Cisco and Splunk have laid out an initial plan on how they will become one. First, Cisco’s Talos threat intelligence will be integrated into Splunk to improve threat detection and facilitate a faster incident response. Cisco also said it will combine both companies’ AI assistants for security for a single user experience when analyzing issues and performing tasks across the combined portfolio. Cisco plans to feed its cloud, network and endpoint analytics into Splunk’s SIEM and SOAR tools. The company also promised “a common experience and workflow optimizations across the Cisco and Splunk observability portfolios.”

“Cisco’s done a really great job of refining their security suite and tying together [its] different security products, and Splunk has the opportunity to create a much better correlation among those products,” Irvine said. “The opportunity that Cisco has now is to create a single security platform.”

Despite Cisco pumping more resources into its security business over the past two years as the company has made its ambition of becoming one of the biggest security players in the market known, Cisco still recognizes the importance of its networking business, Irvine said.

“In fact, I think that one of the reasons that they are focusing so much on security is because it will be a critical, integrated part of the network. I don’t think anyone will be successful long-term in networking without a fully integrated security solution.”

Robbins, for his part, said the “partner community needs to really pay attention” to the Cisco security portfolio combined with Splunk and the advancements that will come in the months ahead. “That is going to move very fast,” he said. “The capabilities that we and our partners should be able to take to our customers in this world of fear and a rapidly evolving threat landscape are the most important things that our partners need to really pay attention to and understand.”

As for his overarching message to partners, Robbins said, “It is an exciting time, and it is only going to get better.”

CRN's Kyle Alspach contributed to this story.