When a customer isn’t just a customer

I just got back from spending three days at Cisco’s corporate headerquarters.   I’ve spent a good portion of my career dealing with vendors.   I’ve spent days in meetings, evaluating products, specing out hardware, leased lines, and other ancillary pieces for building out networks and datacenters, but rarely have I left a set of meetings so jazzed about the future.

CPOCThe first day was spent in design meetings and demo sessions.   We opened the day by outlining where we’re currently at with our network.   Currently, it’s a fairly well designed network with quite a few well known warts, but for the most part it functions very well.   We’re not really hitting any capacity issues anywhere, but for the first time we’re really trying to plan out 2 to 5 years in advance.   We know our current backbone, which is OC12 at the core nationwide, won’t last us for probably more than the next 12 to 18 months.   We know this, because every time we improve our network, we find new ways to utilize it and we blow away all our traffic projections.   However, we know that while our current design is working really well, we don’t want to upgrade 10 core locations to OC48 since half the sites sitting on that core won’t need that kind of connectivity.   So we spent the first part of the morning drawing up a new core architecture with fewer sites and ideas for making it more highly available, including using DPR and/or MPLS fast reroute to provide sub-50 millisecond or sub-100 millisecond failover time in the event of a network failure.   I think we have a promising set of ideas to go into our meetings next month with Level 3, who we purchase the majority of our core connectivity from.

The second half of the day was spent in demos.   We saw some interesting new products on the Unified Communications front, as well a demo of Telepresence.   Cisco makes this point often, but it can’t be stressed enough.   Telepresence cannot be compared to video conferencing.   We have an existing video conference system, which Telepresence has inspired me to improve, but it’s clunky and awkward by comparison.   Telepresence really makes you feel like you’re sitting across the room from the other participants.   Our current video conference system is used maybe once a month nationwide, but I guarantee Telepresence would be booked 100% in our company.   I’d like to try to make our existing video conference system more like Telepresence, because a lot of the ideas Telepresence puts forward in terms of controlling the environment, using high quality video, and directional audio for the partipants can be adapted to our existing system.   It won’t be Telepresence, but it certainly would improve what we currently have.

We finished up the day with a demo of products Cisco is pushing for retail and a discussion about their Service Control Engine product.   The retail demo inspired a discussion about using EVDO as a backhaul for our retail stores, which is so obvious as to be a real slap in the face that we’re not already testing it out.   We already own that last mile connectivity, why are we continuing to pay our competitors for connectivity to our retail outlets?    Also, the Service Control Engine discussion was fascinating.   We went from discussing a product we didn’t even know we owned to talking about all the things it could do for  us.   If you hear about providers shaping traffic down for Peer to Peer traffic and dunning customers for high bandwidth utilization, this is the product that’s doing it.   It can shape traffic at wire speeds including multiple gigabit connections.   Really really impressive.

The next two days were spent in Cisco’s Customer Proof of Concept lab.   We went there to prove that the 7600 platform which we’re currently basing our core network architecture on will scale to meet our demands over the next 2 to 5 years.   As I expected it did.   I also had an excellent discussion with a Cisco executive over in the Unified Communications area about how we can leverage our investment in our IP Telephony infrastructure to really improve communications and productivity.

Cisco really went out of their way to get us access to people who would could answer our questions, give us good ideas for the future and give us access to equipment to test our their claims for our own assurance.   They’re really the gold standard that I’m holding everyone else up to in terms of how they should treat their customers.   We could have spent the same, dollar for dollar, with many other vendors and barely gotten a sales engineer to give us a call back, but Cisco seems to understand from the top down that people sell products, the products don’t sell themselves.   They understand that we’re looking for a vendor to partner with us to help us get to our next level.   Most often in this business there are two or more products that will do any given job, and while technically one might be superior, in the end both would work for a given task.   The decision comes down to more than what exactly the product does, and while having a superior product helps, having a superior organization that stands behind that product and offers it at competitive prices is in my book the best way to get your product into customers hands.   Cisco has a product for nearly anything you need in the networking world, and while we won’t ever be exclusively a Cisco shop, they’re much more likely to sell us a product on a given day due to the fact that they spend so much time focusing on helping their customers implement their solutions and spend so much time focusing on helping their customers support their existing installations.   At the end of the day, the most important question I have to ask when making a purchasing decision usually isn’t what is the best product, it’s which is the best company.   Right now, Cisco’s going a long way to convincing me they are.

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