Survey Says …

Earlier this month, Baird Equity Research issued the results of a survey it conducted with 85 Cisco solution providers in October. These partners, Baird said, represented combined annual Cisco revenue of roughly $8 billion across both the enterprise and commercial markets. Roughly half of them were based in North America.

The results of that survey shed some serious light on how partners feel about everything from Cisco's Intercloud strategy to the eventual retirement of Cisco CEO John Chambers to the growth they expect to see with the networking giant's new Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI).

Take a look to see what's hot, and what's not, for Cisco partners moving into 2015.

2015 Looking Bright

2015 is expected to be a good year for Cisco partners, according to Baird's results.

Roughly 86 percent of the solution providers surveyed said they expect their Cisco businesses to be flat to up in 2015 compared with 2014.

And, of that 86 percent, 22 percent said they expect their Cisco revenue to jump 15 percent or more in 2015, while another 22 percent said they expect growth in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent.

One partner mentioned in the survey that, while Cisco sales are strong, it takes longer to close a deal.

"We’re hoping to have a big year with Cisco -- a 10 percent to 15 percent increase," said the partner. "We have a nice pipeline of business -- although a lot of projects are becoming more complex and involve a lot of different vendors, resulting in a little longer sales cycle."

Nexus 9000 Growth Prospects Look Strong

The foundation of Cisco's ACI platform for software-defined networks is the Nexus 9000, a Cisco data center switch that started shipping in November of last year.

Cisco said in its first-quarter earnings results this month that it now has roughly 900 Nexus 9000 customers, up from 580 in the previous quarter.

Cisco partners, meanwhile, appear to be making good strides with the switch.

Baird's survey results showed that, across 58 partner respondents, there was a total of 470 Nexus 9000 customers, or an average of roughly eight customers per partner. What's more, survey-takers said they expect their Nexus 9000 customer base to more than triple over the next 12 months from 470 to 1,700.

"We're not sure it will take off just yet, but will in 12 months," said another partner. "We are ramping up our sales and engineering teams to be ready for this."

Partners Expecting Lukewarm NSX Sales In 2015

While Cisco was the focus of the survey, partners also were asked to offer up their opinions on the performance of other networking vendors. One of them was VMware, whose NSX solution for software-defined networking has become the chief rival to Cisco's ACI.

According to Baird's survey, when solution providers that also partner with VMware were asked how much NSX business they expect to do in 2015, a whopping 65 percent of them answered, "a little." Twenty-eight percent of partners said they expect to do "none," and 7 percent said "a lot."

On its third-quarter earnings call in November, VMware said it has more than 250 paying customers for NSX.

NSX Will Likely Run On Cisco Gear

When VMware'e NSX software overlay is deployed, it's likely going to run on top of Cisco hardware, according to Baird's partner survey results.

In fact, nearly half the survey-takers said they expect NSX to run on top of Cisco gear. After Cisco, the most common answer was Hewlett-Packard at 16 percent and Arista Networks at 10 percent.

"Again, [NSX is] probably most relevant in [the] Web [provider] world, which will sit on white box," said one partner in the survey. "In [the] enterprise, when it plays out, perhaps middle to end of next year, I believe Cisco will remain as the main platform."

Partners Still Fuzzy On Intercloud

When Cisco introduced its Intercloud strategy at its Global Partner Summit in March, some solution providers told CRN they weren't entirely clear on their role in that strategy, or Cisco's plans for execution. Judging by Baird's survey, that's still largely the case.

When asked if they were putting resources into Intercloud, 40 percent of partners answered an outright "No," while 32 percent said they are putting "modest" resources into the cloud platform and 28 percent said, "Yes," they are investing in Intercloud resources.

Even more telling of partners' feelings toward Intercloud, though, were the partner comments, which ranged from, "Not yet able to get grip on potential market size" to "Messaging to partners still needs work."

Cisco Will Stay Strong Without Chambers

Partners were also asked to share their thoughts on the eventual departure of 19-year Cisco CEO John Chambers, who in 2012 said he would likely retire within the next two to four years.

The majority of partners -- just shy of 70 percent -- said they wouldn't be concerned to see Chambers pass the baton, given the number of strong Cisco candidates, such as President Rob Lloyd, to take over his CEO role.

Roughly 35 percent, however, said Chamber's leaving the company could be "problematic."

UCS Still Hot

Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) converged infrastructure offering has grown to be a serious sweet spot for the networking titan and partners alike. In the first quarter of 2014, UCS sales helped Cisco dethrone HP as the No. 1 x86 server vendor in North America by revenue, according to data from research firm IDC.

And Cisco partners, it seems, are still as bullish on UCS as they were when it launched in 2009.

When asked if Cisco's recent expansion of its UCS lineup -- which included a new UCS mini form factor for smaller and midsize companies -- was meaningful to their overall Cisco businesses, 57 percent of partners responded, "Yes."

Thirty-four percent responded "Maybe," and only 9 percent said, "No."

What's more, one Cisco partner said in the survey that HP's recent split and IBM's spin-off of its x86 server business to Lenovo will only propel UCS growth.

"With HP splitting and IBM selling to Lenovo its Intel server business, Cisco has a tremendous chance to become a -- if not the -- leading provider of Intel servers to enterprise data centers," the partner said.

Cisco Should Hone Focus On Cloud, Security, Storage

When asked to identify areas where Cisco should invest, partners taking Baird's survey said cloud, followed by security and storage.

Twenty-three percent of partners said cloud should be the primary focus for Cisco, while 18 percent said security and 17 percent said storage and big data.

Many of the partner comments again emphasized storage, noting that it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cisco make a big acquisition in the storage arena.

"With HP splitting [and] IBM reducing its [hardware] footprint, Cisco might be compelled to enter storage in a big way to become the leading vendor for data centers by leveraging network, security and a fast-growing server position," said one partner. "It could become the vendor of choice for converged infrastructure."