Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins On The 'Incredibly Powerful' DevNet Platform, SMB, And As-A-Service Opportunities

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins speaks to CRN about the company's ‘heavy’ investments in artificial intelligence for IT operations (AIOps), its partnership with Amazon Web Services, and why DevNet and the SMB market represent huge opportunities for partners.

Robbins On The Record

Cisco Systems CEO Chuck Robbins had some serious face time with the tech giant's channel community this week at the 2019 Cisco Partner Summit. Taking to the stage on day one, Robbins talked to partners about the unprecedented growth Cisco saw this year in channel sales and why partners are so important to the company's strategy, especially as it continues its transformation into a software and subscriptions-oriented business.

CRN caught up with Robbins this week to talk about the big areas of opportunity for the channel, which include a new DevNet specialization, application development and automation, and tackling the SMB space.

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Here's what Robbins had to say about Cisco’s commitment to the channel and where partners can make the most impact with their customers right now and into the future.

Cisco had the highest percentage of business though partners in six years. Do you attribute the company's software focus to that growth?

I think that we have remained committed to doing business through our partners and our partners are bringing such value to our customers, particularly as we make this transition to software, helping our customers adopt and gain value out of the software assets they are buying. I'm sure that's been part of it, but we've just been very committed that as we go through the transition we've gone through, we're going to do it with our partners. I've joked with people that in many cases, I don't know what that might look like, but we are committed to doing it.

We've heard a lot from Cisco execs about trusting the company's strategy. What concerns are partners voicing as Cisco moves toward software?

As we move toward software, I think our partners just want to make sure we go at a pace that allows them to transition their business model in a way that’s healthy for them—that's the predominant thing. That manifests into them talking about a particular change we've made that we need to think about. So, we have taken lots of feedback over the last weeks, months, a year, where we have adapted our programs differently based on what they told us they need to do for us to make the transition together. And then there are some unique situations that exist with certain partners where we're working with them individually. But I think they all believe the destination is the right one and we just have to work together to get there in a healthy way.

What's different about Cisco's SMB efforts today than the company's past efforts?

We used to joke that we had an enterprise ‘Mini-Me’ strategy. We would take enterprise products and paint them a different color. In this case, we have purpose-built solutions and our team has done a great job of segmenting our customers and working with our partners to define programs, sales strategies and incentives that all line up with what's needed in that segment. We have a huge opportunity for share there, and we are going to need to drive our programs very effectively with our partners. I think it's a very holistic strategy today as opposed to how can we take what we have and go be successful there, because that just wasn't the right plan.

As we look at small [business], clearly, the rise of SaaS applications and being able to deliver solutions as a service certainly make it easier to service that segment. And they are looking for simple technology that helps them run their businesses more effectively, so I think it's absolutely different than what we've done in the past.

With the introduction of a new DevNet specialization for partners, how important is a focus on automation and software development for the channel?

This whole opportunity that's created with DevNet and the platform-enabled solutions we have built, it's just incredibly powerful because, No. 1, it allows our partners to create their own intellectual property that differentiates them. When Oliver [Tuszik, senior vice president of Cisco’s Global Partner Organization] talks about ‘owning your edge,’ this is the key area where you can create your edge through DevNet. I think there's so many applications that can be built around automating the operations of all this infrastructure, which is one of the big reasons why we built this whole API structure in the first place—to drive automation. I think downstream you might see classic applications take advantage of being able to program the infrastructure, but the predominant use cases today are around the automation of operations.

Amazon Web Services is prepping the rollout of Outposts by end of this year, which means they’ll be in the data center. Should we expect to see Cisco networking paired with Amazon Outposts?

We don't view Amazon as a competitor—they're actually a very good customer and we work with them a lot. I would suspect we're looking at opportunities where we can partner to bring whatever value we bring, to whatever they believe they need to put on-prem from an equipment perspective. From a solution stack [perspective], I'm sure there will be more and more opportunities over the coming years to work with them.

With Cisco doubling its funding around the AppDynamics partner program, how big of an opportunity do APM and AIOps (artificial intelligence for IT operations) represent to partners heading into next year?

I think AIOps and APM is a very significant play for us today and into the future, and you are going to see us invest heavily there. I think for many of our partners, as our customers continue to evolve how they develop applications, they are going to need these modern capabilities to operate and run these applications, optimize these applications, and bringing all these pieces together to help our customers do that, I think, is a very big opportunity for our partners.

What's going to be the most disruptive market opportunity in 2020, and how can partners capitalize on that?

From our perspective, the biggest disruptive technology that we are going to deliver is the transition of these classic technologies to being delivered as a service, with automation, and changing how our customers actually deal with this [transition]. And that's done through lots of new technologies, like AI and machine learning. The transition to the cloud requires automation and this multidomain architecture. Those are some of the big things we are going to deliver over the next 12 months.

What's the big message you want partners to take away from this year's show?

As we came into [Partner Summit], we knew that being crisp about the partner strategy and how our partners are going to work with us was super important. While we are still on the journey, I think our team has answered a lot of questions and I think partners believe—and I want them to believe—that we are committed to driving this strategy with them and we will listen and continue to service our strategy so we both get to the destination we are trying to get to in a way that is beneficial to both of us.