Enterprise, Channel chiefs, Channel partner events, Channel partner programs, Networking

Cisco Systems’ Cybersecurity Obsession Pays Dividends

Credit: Getty Images
Wendy Bahr,
Wendy Bahr
Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins

Former Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers always cared deeply about IT security. But a true company obsession seemed to emerge when Chuck Robbins became CEO and Wendy Bahr became global channel chief in mid-2015.

That obsession grew louder during two Cisco Partner Summits in 2016. And louder yet again at RSA Conference 2017. No doubt, Cisco is leaning heavily on security revenues as Robbins transitions the company from traditional CapEx hardware sales to OpEx-oriented software and cloud services revenues.

But how do numerous Cisco security products and services fit into an overall partner strategy? ChannelE2E posed those questions to Robbins, Bahr and additional Cisco executives during multiple interviews in November 2016, December 2016 and February 2017.

New Leaders, New Obsession

In some ways, the seeds for this blog entry were planted back in mid-2015 -- when Robbins became CEO and Bahr became global channel chief. During her first 90 days as channel chief, Bahr pointed partners to Cisco’s SourceFire business --- which was adding customers 15 times faster than at the point SourceFire was acquired in 2013.

Fast forward to November 2016, and Cisco launched an Advanced Malware Protection push for endpoints. David Goeckeler, senior VP and GM, networking and security business, described the strategy in this video:

Video link

Cisco Security Strategy: It Starts with Talent

At that point, Cisco's broader security strategy came into focus. It involved  three legs: Endpoint, network and cloud security. Not by coincidence, the company has launched three security software suites:

  • Threat Defense for Data Center
  • Threat Defense for WAN and Edge
  • Policy and Threat Defense for Access

Poke around Cisco and you'll notice the security team spans homegrown talent and acquired talent. A case in point: Take a look at David Ulevitch's background. He founded OpenDNS in  2005 and sold the security company to Cisco for $635 million in 2015. Instead of heading for the exits, Ulevitch shifted to a VP role at Cisco that year.

David Ulevitch

By December 2016, it was time for another step up -- this time to a senior VP position at Cisco. "I asked myself, 'Where can I have the biggest impact?'" Ulevitch told ChannelE2E at the time. The obvious answer, he realized, was Cisco because the company "has a stage unlike any other in the world" upon which to stand. The security team, he adds, is "full of people who have run businesses and have been founders."

That team reports into Goeckeler, who is responsible for more than $32 billion of Cisco's global revenues. He leads a global team of over 25,000 engineers and oversees Cisco's networking and security strategy and market acceleration, including development operations.

Among the challenges Cisco has faced: How to acquire and scale businesses like OpenDNS, and support everyone from the smallest partners to the world's largest service providers. When Cisco acquired OpenDNS, Ulevitch wanted to ensure the company could continue to "play in all areas of opportunity."

David Goeckeler

Fast forward to present day, and Cisco has fulfilled that promise, he says. "David Goeckeler and the entire team have been incredibly supportive. Cisco will do almost anything to make customers happy -- regardless of the internal indigestion it might cause at Cisco," Ulevitch asserts.

So what's the strategy going forward? "Making sure every product in every category is best-in-class," Ulevitch says. A case in point: "We were late with next-generation firewalls but now we're extremely credible" and growing faster than rivals, he asserts.

The next few years, he says, will be all about making sure Cisco provides deeper integrations across its security products -- thereby multiplying the overall value of those products. Most customers don't have time for APIs, he concedes, so Cisco must focus on integrations that deliver outcomes.

Among the key focus areas: Helping the MSP and MSSP partner ecosystems as they become virtual CIOs for customers. Those types of partners are "one breach away from being fired," Ulevitch says. "That's unfair but it's an accurate statement."

To help partners stand tall amid those intense security pressures, Cisco is working to shorten the time to detection and remediation, while also coupling everything with more automation. And when the human element is needed, Cisco will be standing by with a S.W.A.T. team to assist, he says.

Cisco Security R&D

From our conversation with Ulevitch in December, fast forward to RSA Conference in February 2017.

Dave Gronner

While there, ChannelE2E caught up with Bobby Guhasarkar, director of product, Cisco OpenDNS (now Cisco Umbrella); and Dave Gronner (via phone), channels business development, network & cyber security technologies at Cisco.

The duo described the shift from perimeter firewalls and hardware products toward cloud-oriented Secure Internet Gateways. "It's really a new space," Guhasarkar asserts. "It's a new consumption model and sales motion for our partners who have not been in the cloud services business."

Indeed, Cisco says Umbrella is designed to address:

  • Visibility and enforcement on and off network;
  • protection over all ports and protocols;
  • live threat intelligence;
  • proxy and file inspection; and
  • Discovery and control of SaaS.

Plus, it should be "as easy for a dentist office as it is for a Fortune 100 company to implement security," says Gronner. Umbrella, he asserts, addresses that need for partners and customers.

It's also a programmable product, which means APIs allow partners to move security information into third-party analysis tools like Splunk. There's also RMM (remote monitoring and management) integration, which further eases management for MSPs.

Cisco Security: Keeping Score

Anecdotal evidence suggests Cisco's security business is accelerating.

As of February 2017, Cisco Umbrella had about 13,000 customers backed by 2,000 MSPs. But that's only part of the story. Cisco’s security revenue rose 14 percent in Q2 2017, Robbins said during the company's earnings call in February.

Business was particularly strong for Cisco’s Advanced Malware Protection (APM) deployments. The company added more than 6,000 new APM customers during the quarter, and associated revenue rose 65 percent in the quarter. Cisco’s APM installed base is now 29,000 customers.

No doubt, those are impressive milestones and growth figures. But competition looms around every corner. In the SMB sector, a newly independent SonicWall is regaining partner momentum. In the midmarket, Barracuda Networks is building close relationships with Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS for virtualized cloud security. And in the MSP sector, companies like Sophos and Webroot have successfully engaged partners worldwide.

Among Cisco's fiercest rivals, Palo Alto Networks is still growing rapidly and pleasing partners, though Wall Street has been pushing for even faster growth in recent weeks.

Scaling Up -- and Down

If Cisco has a perceived security weakness, it involves midmarket and SMB partners. During Cisco Partner Summit in November 2016, some partners alleged Cisco products were overly focused on global 2000 customers -- essentially allowing rival security companies to engage small and midsize customers.

Cisco's response? Offerings like Umbrella and others scale up to the largest customers and down to the smallest customers. And more Umbrella enhancements are on the way, Cisco hinted during RSA Conference.

Moreover, keep an eye on Cisco's IoT security strategy, described on this video:

If you're keeping score, the next progress report will likely emerge May 16 -- when Cisco shares its latest quarterly earnings report. In the meantime, it's a safe bet Robbins and his lieutenants will maintain their healthy obsession with cybersecurity.

Joe Panettieri

Joe Panettieri is co-founder & editorial director of MSSP Alert and ChannelE2E, the two leading news & analysis sites for managed service providers in the cybersecurity market.