Relative to its two biggest rivals, Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL - Get Report) Google Cloud Platform (GCP) has faced an uphill battle when it comes to landing big enterprise deals. And Cisco Systems Inc.'s (CSCO - Get Report) lucrative data center switch business has been dealing with both tough direct competition, and third-party software platforms that make it easier for companies to deploy commodity hardware.
Google and Cisco's new alliance isn't a magic bullet for those problems. Nor does it -- at least based on what's been announced -- address another big problem Cisco's hardware business faces as cloud adoption swells. But it does put both companies on better competitive footing, particularly given some of the software tools covered by the deal.
Starting with a limited rollout in the first half of 2018, Google and Cisco plan to offer enterprises -- with the help of Cisco's giant salesforce -- a hybrid cloud solution. This will allow them to jointly manage apps and services running on GCP and their own infrastructures, and move workloads between them as they see fit. A broader commercial rollout will happen in the back half of 2018.
Notably, the solution will rely heavily on Kubernetes, a very popular open-source tool (originally developed by Google) for managing large deployments of containers. Containers run on top of server operating systems and house an application and various pieces of code that an application relies on. As such, they act as lightweight alternatives to server virtual machines (VMs) relying on virtualization software from the likes of VMware Inc. (VMW - Get Report) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT - Get Report) .
Though not ideal for all workloads -- VMs often remain a better choice if a company wants to deploy many different apps and services on the same server, rather than multiple copies of the same app or service -- the resource efficiency of containers, together with how easy they make it to deploy apps and move them betweens servers -- has led adoption to soar over the last few years. And though by no means the only cloud platform to offer them, the quality of GCP's container services, and how easy they make it (with the help of Kubernetes) to move workloads between multiple clouds and data centers, has been an important selling point for Google.
Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN - Get Report) , by contrast, struck a deal with VMware last year that involves the creation of a VMware service that lets companies jointly manage workloads deployed on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and their own servers than run on top of VMware's vSphere virtualization software. And though Microsoft has also warmed to Kubernetes, hybrid cloud deployments involving Microsoft's Azure cloud platform often leverage the company's Hyper-v virtualization software.
Google had already struck a deal with Nutanix Inc. (NTNX - Get Report) , a rival of Cisco in the market for hyperconverged systems that integrate server, storage, networking and virtualization resources, to support hybrid clouds that can be managed with Kubernetes' help. But the Cisco deal is more important due both to the size of Cisco's enterprise footprint, and the fact that the deal appears to cover a number of Cisco software offerings.
Among other things, the Google-Cisco solution is said to give companies software tools for extending Cisco networking and security policies across cloud and local environments, as well as (presumably with the help of software from AppDynamics, which Cisco bought for $3.7 billion earlier this year) for monitoring the performance of apps across GCP and a firm's own data centers.
The deal also enables the use of software from Google's Apigee unit to create programming interfaces (APIs) for older apps that let them integrate with cloud apps, and the use of an open-source software tool called Istio for managing large deployments of microservices (modular components within an app that provide a set of services). The companies are also offering joint developer and technical support services. All in all, they put a lot of legwork into this deal.
By making network policy and monitoring tools that are linked to its hardware part of this deal, Cisco isn't just furthering its big multi-year push to grow its software exposure. It's also giving businesses that adopt GCP a reason to continue buying its data center switches. That could be helpful as Cisco contends with both Arista Networks Inc.'s (ANET - Get Report) data center switching share gains and the adoption of VMware's NSX software-defined networking (SDN) platform.
By shifting networking intelligence to software-based controllers residing on servers, NSX -- a part of VMware's Amazon deal, and now on a $1 billion-plus revenue run rate -- makes it easier for companies to deploy commodity switches that cost far less than Cisco's. As an alternative, Cisco has been offering businesses its ACI SDN platform, which works with its Nexus 9000 data center switches.
But for all its benefits, the Google deal likely won't do much to relieve -- and in some ways, could even worsen -- the pressure that Cisco's server, switching and routing businesses face from growing corporate adoption of cloud infrastructures that don't use much Cisco hardware. That's true at least unless the deal also involves Google deploying Cisco hardware within GCP's data centers, something that wasn't mentioned in the announcements related to the deal.
Google has a long history of designing its own switches for use in its data centers, and was known to be a client of SDN startup Nicira before VMware bought the company and used its software to launch NSX. Cisco, meanwhile, saw its switching revenue drop 9% annually in the July quarter amid cloud pressures and product transitions for its Catalyst campus switching business.
But given its recent cloud-related issues, as well as VMware's alliance with Amazon, Cisco has to take what it can get here. Just as Google, whose cloud infrastructure business has a much smaller enterprise footprint than Amazon or Microsoft's, has to be quite happy that it now has one of the world's biggest enterprise IT firms on its side.