With all the interest in fashionable network jargon - cloud, virtualisation, WAN optimisation, consumerisation and mobility - it is easy to forget about the plumbing - the switches and routers that form the backbone of the information age.
It's a landscape traditionally dominated by firms such as Cisco, but lately a new breed of network vendor has started to make its presence felt. They're coming from the Far East and they're doing things a little differently.
You can see it in the growing aggressiveness of smaller network vendors. Netgear, for example, is building out its enterprise team, D-Link is also piling in, and ZyXEL wants to be a billion dollar company. They all have something else in common, too. They're talking cheaper, faster kit.
More recently, Huawei, which launched its enterprise partner programme last year to much fanfare, has been trying to make its mark.
"Huawei has the technology, it's got the pieces that work, it's running faster than the networks over here, and offering price performance as a key element. It's not pretending to be Cisco, it's just selling stuff," says Ian Kilpatrick of Wick Hill.
Competing on price
The emergence of Huawei in the channel could be perceived as a threat by some, especially when price is taken into account, but there are differing views over how much of one, if any, it really poses.
"The fear factor for the reseller is, if he's selling a Cisco switch for north of £40,000, and these guys come in with the same device for a smaller footprint, with lower power and management costs, for under £10,000, he'll have to sell more of them for a quarter of the price to keep his numbers up," says Barrie Desmond, group director, marketing and global accounts, at Exclusive Networks.
"Huawei takes advantage of advances in chip and component design and is not laden down with legacy product, architectures and operating systems," he adds.
However, a stumbling block for companies such as Huawei - and an area where fellow Far Eastern firms such as D-Link, Netgear and ZyXEL with big EMEA teams already in place can get ahead - is their corporate culture and business model.
Desmond argues that in the eyes of the West, Huawei's business model remains stuck in the 1980s. This suits the insatiable Chinese market down to the ground, but loses something in translation when it arrives at Heathrow. "[Huawei] has to get to grips with its model, culture and go-to-market [strategy], and I don't think it has. It will struggle in the near-term," he says.
David Galton-Fenzi, group sales and marketing director at Zycko, first encountered Huawei six years ago, and takes a similar view of the firm's chances here.
He says Huawei seemed to have a lot going for it at first; not only was it independent of the competitive US scene, and therefore unlikely to be bought or squashed by Cisco, but it also had a much wider range, and the perceived cost of ownership was far lower.
"Huawei swallowed a lot of deals with telcos and did very well selling direct. Now that it's going for the enterprise channel it has snapped up a lot of expensive Cisco executives and raised its targets. It still says it's cheap, but Cisco and HP Networking can match it if pushed. The market has moved on," says Galton-Fenzi.
Both he and Kilpatrick share the view that the kit doesn't matter. "The moment you head to the cloud, you become comparatively agnostic in terms of kit. What you're interested in is guaranteed performance. Why on earth would you put in something more expensive if nobody is going to see it or care?" says Kilpatrick.
Software is king
"It's not the hardware vendors that will win, it's the software vendors," says Galton-Fenzi. "Look at Red Hat; its operating system can run over any old hardware. Applications are revolutionising the network. Routing is not rocket science."
As a case in point, Zycko is currently working with cloud routing and switching vendor Meraki, which is bringing out products that deliver higher levels of scalability and functionality, but give freedom in terms of the hardware platform.
This brings him to the conclusion that Huawei is actually just another Cisco, and is not to be feared at all. But that doesn't mean that either of them should be discounted.
"Big brands will survive because accreditations and vendor lock-in will help them resist. The new wave of vendors will give cause not for concern, but for opportunity; they will need to acquire or partner to increase growth," says Kilpatrick.
For the network channel, this will bring us back to cloud and virtualisation. The channel needs something to distract from the fact that the boxes don't matter, and that outside of huge
enterprises where nobody gets fired for buying Cisco, businesses don't care what they're running.
"Mid-market and small businesses are looking for performance and price, so on the infrastructure side I'm seeing transition away from big brands, because the moment you step out of the enterprise environment the labelling becomes a lot less critical," says Kilpatrick.
"You will still need the plumbing, but it will be generic. How will Cisco counter that? Ultimately, it must separate out the sales it makes from hardware. It will have to buy someone. Maybe VMware," suggests Galton-Fenzi.
Of course, the business world will still need switches and routers, but it's time to face up to the fact that the entire model around selling kit from the traditional network box vendors must change.
This was first published in March 2012