Cisco Chief Executive’s New Mantra: Simplify Computer Networks

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Mr. Robbins specifically pointed to a new line of switching systems called the Catalyst 9000, which has some novel features, including the ability to scan packets of data for malicious software even if they are encrypted. In just the past three quarters, it has been purchased by 5,800 customers, a record order rate for the company.

Catalyst 9000 also comes with new software used to manage the systems, called DNA Center, which provides a kind of digital dashboard for all the devices connected to a corporate network. The software streamlines what technicians need to do, which previously involved typing in an arcane set of text commands for each networking device to configure and make changes to a network. Cisco estimates that it has taught that skill to more than six million people over the years, building customer loyalty through their investment in training.

But the labor to manage that complexity has turned into a liability, Mr. Robbins said. Companies often spend $15 in operating costs over five years for each dollar spent on network technology, he said.

Seth Price, who manages networks operated by Durham County, N.C., estimated that DNA Center and other Cisco software had reduced the time needed to resolve service problems by 80 percent. Finding and isolating a computer infected with malware — a job that once took months — now takes hours, he said.

DNA Center is also designed to improve security by making it easier to restrict what devices can communicate with one another. That was a key selling point for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which has to worry about protecting computers, medical instruments and other devices, said Steven Garske, its chief information officer. The hospital decided to buy 350 of the Catalyst devices last July.

The latest Cisco technology works like “digital alchemy,” said Jerry Sheehan, chief information officer at Montana State University, which is also testing DNA Center.

Mr. Robbins still has plenty to think about. Rivals are promoting similar approaches, including the hardware makers Arista Networks, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Juniper Networks and Huawei of China, while software specialists include VMware, Cumulus Networks and Apstra.

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