Cisco, Deloitte: Multi-Vendor Networks A Roll Of The Dice For Customers

Cisco's taken plenty of knocks in recent years for the perception that the end-to-end Cisco architectural vision for networking and data centers is an investment smart customers don't have to make when they can adopt a multi-vendor approach that's cheaper and more flexible.

Among its many antagonists is researcher Gartner, whose influential November 2010 report, "Debunking the Myth of the Single-Vendor Network," took direct aim at Cisco and painted Cisco's architectural concept as too expensive, too closed and too proprietary.

"The reality is that a single-vendor Cisco network isn't necessarily less complex, easier to manage or more reliable than a network with multiple vendors when implemented with best practices," Gartner researchers Mark Fabbi and Debra Curtis wrote at the time.

But in a new report released this week, Deloitte Consulting argues that there are no material cost differences on a long-term basis between single-vendor and multi-vendor architectures, that customers prefer single vendors to be responsible for all of their network components and services, and that the use of multiple networking vendors is at best an operational risk and at worse a serious disadvantage.

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The report, commissioned by Cisco, is part of an ongoing competitive blitz by the networking titan aimed at HP, Juniper and other networking alternatives that have aggressively gone after Cisco market share in recent years. Deloitte's research, in essence, says that a single-vendor network is the much safer and ultimately, more cost-effective option for enterprises.

Deloitte's research relied on customers using Cisco products along with other vendors' products in the networks. According to the researcher, it conducted extensive, multi-hour interviews with 15 different enterprise customers, and used information from hundreds more enterprises from its repository of customer information. The majority of Deloitte's surveyed customers were organizations with networks between 2,000 and 10,000 users, and were considered "large" customers with a three-tier network, multiple distribution sites and more than 30 remote sites. The consultancy says it interviewed CIOs, directors of infrastructure and network and security leaders to compile the data.

According to Deloitte, Cisco did not know the identities of any of the organizations it interviewed for the report. Several key themes emerged, among them that customers want a simple, scalable, adaptable network, and that they're more concerned about operational risk than the straight-up cost of network products.

"A big takeaway is that when talking to business leaders, they don't look at the network as a network budget, they look at it as an IT and business operations budget," said Chris Weitz, director of technology strategy and architecture at Deloitte Consulting, in an interview with CRN. "Operationally and functionally, what we clearly find from customers surveys is the classic 'keep it simple' rule. Complex systems tend to break down. And this isn't about standards, but about operational usage and operational effects."

Single-vendor networks allow organizations to adapt more quickly, the Deloitte report states. Multi-vendor networks often require customers to maintain additional network facilities to test, diagnose and resolve vendor interoperability issues, for example, and with that comes the added headache of getting different vendors' support teams to work together.

"Network components provide greater value if they interoperate without affecting performance, security, manageability, or operation stability," researchers wrote. "Maintaining interoperability is crucial for an organization which operates a multivendor network, and this carries additional associated costs."

In a multi-vendor environment, Deloitte says, competing vendors are not always aware of the capabilities of other vendors' products and how they interoperate. Among other hassles, that can create network security risks, particularly if the network changes aren't minimal, and also create challenges for customers thanks to various vendors' different product refresh cycles.

"New products from non-incumbent vendors may offer an initial cap-ex incentive due to discounted product pricing, but any potential savings may be reduced or eliminated by accelerated depreciation losses caused by retiring older equipment before it has reached the end of its useful life," Deloitte wrote.

Next: No Difference In Savings

Deloitte states: "Customers do not see material cost differences between single and multivendor networks. Network purchases which bring potentially lower initial product costs are frequently canceled out over time with higher long-term costs associated with service, support and remediating additional operational risk. The cost of an unmediated business impact can be significantly larger than the product cost savings from network vendor diversity."

"What we found is that there are low savings over three years and zero over five," Weitz said. "You're really not saving yourself any money when you count all of the risk mitigation. In a one-year snapshot, it might look like a goo deal, but the longer you go, the worse it gets, because the tiniest additional probability of failure can be very, very expensive to a business. When people think about it that way, they'd rather pay a single vendor a premium. They don't like it."

Network outages are the big fear of enterprises, because they can cost between $20,000 and $200,000 per hour in labor and services costs, Deloitte wrote.

Weitz said that it's important to think of a network as analogous to an airplane.

"You look at the whole plane -- the whole thing flies together," he said. "If you start swapping out parts, the entire plane could be put at risk. In a network, maybe you can put some other stuff at the edge if you understand the zone of risk impact, but interconnectedness is absolutely crucial and one service delivery chain breaking will make the whole system go down."

Most network managers would agree that no amount of staging replicates real world network conditions, added Weitz, a former network engineer. In other words, vendors that say their various products work together really only have lab testing to go on when making that statement.

"You cannot do any real testing of a network unless it's under real world conditions," he said. "You just can't. The reality is they all work fine until they don't. It's entirely a function of usage conditions. Stuff happens."