Cisco’s Transformation to Software-Centric Approach Helping COVID-19 Response – Futurum Tech Podcast Interview Series
by Daniel Newman | April 16, 2020

On this special edition of The Futurum Tech Podcast – Interview Series host Daniel Newman welcomed Masum Mir, Vice President of Product for 5G Automation and Software for Cisco. Daniel and Masum discussed what Cisco has been doing to help the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation to software-defined infrastructure and what our new normal will look like after the pandemic is over.

How Cisco is Helping the Community

Cisco has made a big commitment to employees, partners, clients and the public during this pandemic. The company has pledged $225 million to the COVID-19 response in cash, products and services. The main priority is to provide a robust infrastructure that won’t go down. It has to be up and running 24/7 for customers and partners and that requires 24/7 support services.

People are using Cisco’s collaboration platforms and video communications tools for work, education, and staying connected. We are seeing an unprecedented demand on the video infrastructure so Cisco is doing all that it can to provide additional software capabilities to existing infrastructure to keep the video experience from fading.

Moving to Software Defined Infrastructure Prepared for 5G

Over the last few years, Cisco has transformed from hardware to a software-defined business. They have worked to simplify the infrastructure and moved to a software model where remote upgrades are possible. The situation brought about by COVID-19 has shown the critical nature of transformations. It’s clear that the companies that have already transformed, like Cisco, are reaping a huge benefit.

This transformation to a software-defined infrastructure has also opened the doors for automation and scalable changes. As we move into the 5G era, Cisco expects to see more demand on the network. Masum said the network will be massive. Having automatable, scalable infrastructure will allow people and companies, whether it’s 5 people or 5000, to have the same connection experience and at the end of the day, customer experience is what matters.

Cisco is also constantly working to simplify the network connection strategy and automation strategy for service providers. Masum shared that they’ve put a lot of emphasis on digitizing and automating processes. They’re pushing traditional service providers to disrupt and change because the current network model is outdated. Service providers need to be able to deliver faster services while reducing overhead and capital expenses. Moving to a software-defined architecture that enables automation will help these companies meet the operation demands from customers around the world.

Is This ‘New Normal’ Permanent?

This crisis has pushed the world into a new normal. We work from home. We have to be able to respond from home. We have to be able to manage issues from home. What will all of this mean for the future? Masum surmised that this will change the way infrastructure is built. Companies will need to be proactive, not reactive. Infrastructure will need to be more nimble. It will need to be scalable, up or down, and allow for automation. Cisco has already embraced this school of thought and is ready to help partners transform.

If you’d like to learn more about what Cisco is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic or learn more about their 5G initiatives check out their website. Be sure to listen to the full episode for more insights and while you’re at it, make sure to hit subscribe so you never miss an episode.


Daniel Newman: Welcome to the Futurum Tech Podcast, The Interview Series. I’m your host today, Daniel Newman, Principal Analyst and founding partner at Futurum Research. Excited to be joined by Masum Mir from Cisco today.

Masum, how are you doing?

Masum Mir: I’m doing great. Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, it’s great to have you on the show. Excited to have you on The Interview Series. This series compliments our regular podcast where we bring the executives on from some of the world’s greatest tech companies to talk about emerging trends, new technology, product roll-outs. And today and at this particular time, a number of different topics. For everyone out there, obviously podcasts can be downloaded over a long period of time. I hope you’re a subscriber and that you’re grabbing this in real time. But as these same people download podcasts, sometimes days, weeks and months afterwards, it is March of 2020. And normally I don’t point that out when I interview people because usually the content’s pretty evergreen, but we are in the middle of some of the most interesting, unprecedented times in our history. March 27, 2020, the day after the United States became the number one hotbed for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has completely changed the way we work. It’s taken all of us out of the skies. I used to travel 47 weeks a year to 27 events that I would’ve been traveling to over the next two and a half months. And instead, over the last three weeks, I have legitimately been sitting on my butt on the same chair in my office every day.

But one of the great things has been the opportunity to have some tremendously interesting conversations with some really smart people. And Masum, I’ve had the chance to talk to you offline and you are one of those smart people. Masum is the VP of product for Five Key Automation and Software at Cisco. But without further ado, as I said, I’d love to have you introduce yourself. And just talk a little bit, Masum, about the work you do every day at Cisco.

Masum Mir: Thank you, Daniel. Every day what we work on, we try to take the technology forward, work hand in hand with our customers. So we work as well as transition to a completely end-to-end digital life for our consumers as well as enterprises. I also just wanted to say something as you started. It is an unprecedented time, but especially for us. We are based here in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County. We became a hotspot of this crisis about three weeks back. This is the third week in a row that we are all staying home, trying to save face; but on the same time, trying to help our customers and the community. And we also very thankful that our technologies and the infrastructure is actually holding up very well. We are working 24/7 to deal with unprecedented time. We have a lot more application on what we are doing now and what we can do in the future.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to point out and say thank you to Cisco in what the company has done. Well, your business on the service provider side has some really important roles, in terms of helping everything from first responders being able to communicate, to keeping the fabric of the network up and running that’s enabling people to work remotely from home and helping students that need to learn right now. There’s so much that the tech community is contributing. And it’s been really interesting to debate, because for the people that don’t really follow tech closely or understand the contributions that tech makes to our overall community, which it’s hard to believe that there’s people out there that don’t, but they really are, they see health care and they’ll see first responders as what you would call essential. But they would think that closing down Cisco or a chip company like an Intel during this time makes sense. Really when you think about it, what you’re doing day in and day out is really important to keeping those essential workers at work.

Masum Mir: And also, that to get the community going, to get the economy going, during the difficult time. Hopefully key recognition that we have, there are so many soldiers on the front line fighting for us, putting their life at risk to save the community and make sure our economy and some businesses continue to grow during this time. It also reminds us build and what we drive, both for the service provider infrastructure as well as our societies and the community and businesses, is mission critical.

Daniel Newman: Absolutely, Masum, and thanks for sharing that. I did have the chance to sit in on one of the ELT briefings that was given by your CEO, Chuck Robbins. It’s where Cisco’s medical staff has engaged some of the  people, officer, your chief communications, and just had the chance to sit and observe. I spent about 30 minutes watching. It’s really great to see a company that is so focused on trying to communicate, trying to give a balance of comfort to employees that during this time are probably as anxious and uncertain about their futures. Chuck said to the group that he’s committing for a minimum of 60 days to making no moves, in terms of employees and layoffs.

And of course, 60 days may come as not enough one way or enough that… Right now, when every day feels uncertain, that’s such a nice relief. And it’s also great that the company offers inside medical insight to employees to really understand what this is. Because if you read the internet long enough, you’ll be convinced that this is either a cold, the flu, or it is a death sentence. It’s just like everything is so polarized that it’s really hard to get good information, Masum.

So it was really good at the very top level to get that kind of feedback. But I’d love for you to share… I’ve heard some of this. But just directly from you and from someone at Cisco, what are some of the specific things that Cisco are doing right now to help the community, as you suggested?

Masum Mir: As you have all heard and also seen in the news, we are making a big commitment in a top down, heavy way in the company. Our top priority is our community and the people, as well as our customer. This is an unprecedented time; not only with funding, but also providing technologies to medical responders, to clinics, so they can continue to serve the community and the people and the businesses during this difficult time, through communications, through video communication and a robust network infrastructure that doesn’t go down. On top of that, we are also taking some more additional steps. We know during this time many of our clients are now working from home, and trying to make sure that the work gets done also gets priority on what is mission critical. What is life-saving? For that, we also are doing something extra for our infrastructure providers or service providers, giving them capabilities to absorb the extra demand. We are also providing them consulting services as well as software capabilities so they can continue to run their operations team, let’s say. And this is where we are also recognizing how important it is for us to transform our customer’s operation into digital operation, transforming manual operation into automated operation. We are fully committed, whole thing, full 360 degree, from financial support to technical administrative support, and bringing some innovation and technology to help us go through this challenging time.

Daniel Newman: Absolutely. I mean, just to get specific for everyone out there that maybe hasn’t read this, Cisco has committed to contributing somewhere on $225 million, and that’s a combination of cash and a lot of services and equipment. A lot of people have probably heard what it’s done to help students and help businesses with offering expanded WebEx services for free, but there’s a whole lot of the backbone, the fabric of the internet, that would require enhancement in order for anything, any of these services to be offered. And that’s a lot of stuff that your team is involved in, and working with your partners and the service providers. See, this doesn’t happen, this isn’t a one-man band or a one person effort. This is something that takes an army. As you said, it’s an army on the front lines.

And it’s not just the doctors and the nurses, it’s the people that are quickly deploying a network that can enable us a pop-up hospital or a pop-up testing to be connected, and there’s a lot of that kind of stuff going on. So let’s start off and talk about that a little bit more, more broadly, Masum. What are the partner service providers and what are you guys focused on?

Masum Mir: Right now our number one focus is to make sure the network does not go down. It has to be up and running 24/7; and then prior to this, laid on physical infrastructure. On top of that, there is a second priority. But obviously for the first priority, we are making sure we have 24/7 consulting services, support services, from our team. There’s another angle that is starting to become very challenging for many of our service providers. The surge and spike on the video communication over the mobile network is unprecedented. And when you want to run the business on the same time you have a small kid at home, trying to get to their education, technology is truly their communication as well. You also have to have entertainment in your life.

So all these are seeing unprecedented demand on video traffic. When you have a very big spike, initially what we would do… You have to go and roll out truck to add more capacity, put fiber. But we are so lucky and privileged that we have developed these technologies, now it is showing us that. For example, we have video optimization technology that our customers are able to deploy without going and visiting the site. We’re adding software capabilities, remote control based, and adding those capabilities into existing infrastructures so our video experience doesn’t fade away. Not only that, the network is capable to adapt during this unprecedented time, and it is happening in multiple of our customers around the world. We are very thankful to them. The capability in technology innovation that happened several years back, now we are seeing a real use and need; and the importance of that technology continues optimization in a very, very smart way in mobile infrastructure. That’s what that is for.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. I mean, it’s an interesting example. I think even if I can back it up and even get a little bit broader, what Cisco has been really focused on over the past couple of years has been about simplification of infrastructure and taking something that’s been done via hardware for a long time and via expensive client based type of technologies that required massive overhaul with each new generation, expensive hardware, truck roll. And you’ve really gone to a software defined network, a fabric that can be changed, enhanced, and upgraded quickly, like the cloud in a lot of ways. In fact, like the cloud in a lot of ways. I think the service providers, the ones that have been able to deal with the capacity issues and enhancing their network in the past weeks and months of this crisis, it’s been a lot based on that kind of underlying work that you guys have been trying to drive people towards for the past few years.

Masum Mir: Absolutely. Contracts of the transformation that we have been driving on software decline, taking capabilities that are imperative to hardware into more software defined and remote control as well. The simplified operation and software driven model, that’s happening today. We have to roll out massive amount of infrastructure upgrade. This is a proof of what is the real value we can bring as we go through this digital transformation of our business and transform all of our capabilities, both in enterprise as well as in the infrastructure. As soon as we move to software, we also have to think about how we automate. We have to automate at scale, and this is where our next frontier is.

Daniel Newman: And that’s something that’s been the focus. I mean, I remember looking back to Mobile World Congress, the last time we had it; because this year, unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and coronavirus it was canceled. Last year, Cisco had a big focus on it. I remember you were showing some examples, I think some stuff you guys were working on specifically with [Rakuten] was an example that you guys were highlighting. So I know I can talk about it because it was highlighted in public. But you are showing sort of that automation, and I remember I wrote up on Market Watch kind of the 5G winners last year from Mobile World Congress. I said what I really loved about what Cisco was doing was that you were focusing on streamlining and automating the process. So with each one of these…

For instance, when I’m in 5G and this network is deployed, these aren’t like 4G networks of the past. These aren’t large towers and base stations. These are going to be small micro cells that are going to be deployed at mass scale, especially… You’ve got sub-6, you’ve got [Vimeo] and you’ve got… It’s escaping me right now. The spectrum, what’s the spectrum that’s the narrow band in the cities right now?

Masum Mir: I call that the whole band, right? You could really think that…

Daniel Newman: Millimeter wave, millimeter wave. I’m sorry, I just had to say it. It would literally be the high band area.

Masum Mir: So it is so important for us and it is also a profound painting that we have done at every G. If you think about every G, you think about speed. But we’re taking it to the next level. Every G actually creates a tremendous amount of opportunity for us to lay claim, and we have done that. When we were thinking about the 5G, we took cloud infrastructure and more a way of building software. So when we started to take that journey, automation was not as normal. We refashioned our software to make sure it is automatable. It is based on modern principles of software. It is all micro services based. We did not just take the ED platform. There’s been a shift. We did refactor all of this so it is automatable and it is automatable at scale. One thing that we know on the full band of spectrum that is made, found millimeter way to low band all 600 megahertz.

One thing we know for sure, as we roll out next generations of infrastructure, we’ll not only get more speed. Our network is going to get massive. The end point of what I see [inaudible] is going to reach part of the way you think about operations. Now we have to think about operations at scale, and operations needs to be not a reactive operation, a proactive machine-given operation. All the investment that we have made to what we call automation of authorization in cloud, data based architecture, the foundation. We’ve seen the first results of that with the 5G and we also believe that will start to expand into any type of infrastructure. Where we are going with that is, as a business or as an individual, it doesn’t matter how I connect, how big am I or how small am I. In terms of just how I connect, how we get the same experience, same quality of service, because of how I remain connected or what I’m connected from.

Daniel Newman: So you want to keep the experience streamlined. But for the service providers, in order to keep that up, it’s density growth, it’s volume growth in those spectrums as it puts more pressure on throughput in the networks, essentially they need to be able to tune it, just like a software program or we tune Ruby on Rails to be able to allow more tweets to go through the code. People don’t realize this stuff’s not happening on accident. This is very well-designed and automated. You remember the early days of software, like Twitter, that you had to have those capacities. Because you would build it for a certain amount of capacity, and then when capacity would break, you would imagine there wasn’t little birdies in the background fixing it each time. It had thresholds and it knew it, and these networks need to be built that same way, Masum. And so it’s really interesting. You helped finish my sentence really nice. And we haven’t spent that much time together, but I think we’re birds of a feather. I like that.

So experience stays the same. Capability is the key. It has to be capable but automated, because if it’s not automated, then it becomes too much work, too much risk of degregated services. And what this really is about though, if I can ask, obviously we talk about experience for consumers; but the other thing is it opens up the gates for every business to really be able to embrace digital transformation beyond the network, beyond just the concept of it. What it takes to digitally transform is this backbone, is this capability, the scale, and have the type of bandwidth and connectivity you need.

Masum Mir: So I often times call that… Even today, we think of a physical journey of enterprises as a privilege. Not everyone connects to the important digital community. So we are very laser focused on bringing it to the masses. We want to make sure that in this sector, that service providers jump.. It can be a very small business or a medium-sized business, or a very large enterprise. Based on who you are, it will find your subject. We want to make sure you’re experiencing everything. The way to get there, again, it is automation. It is digital business and digital operation at scale, and we are fully committed. You have seen Cisco communicating a lot, both in enterprise, which is our IBM strategies for enterprises, and our automation strategy and simplified networking strategy for our service providers. We think our opportunity in front of us is multi-domain problems that are going to be solved, with experts like us putting a lot of emphasis on digitizing it and automating it into a process.

Daniel Newman: It’s more likely the top level of some companies, but I’ve been saying for a long time that the future of the service provider network is going to look a lot more like the computing, the data center, and the cloud than it did the analog phone co networks. That’s basically meaning it’s ringing in a new set of competitors, a new set of companies, a new set of players. But we’re hearing that, we’re hearing partnerships you might have. You’re seeing hyperscalers entering the space. You’re hearing about the growth of the edge. I don’t know if it’s a year or three years… And it’s partially my job to predict these things, but the market will end up dictating this. But I think we’re going to have a very different set of players really running the show. And don’t get me wrong, players like Cisco… This isn’t new for Cisco. This has become new to the point where Cisco can make such a massive impact and have such a considerable component of involvement in deploying service provider networks. This is evolving very quickly and this has to be very exciting for you.

Masum Mir: So Daniel, sometimes it might feel uncomfortable, but you have to be uncomfortable to drive these changes. So you could say it will, but don’t say it is. And how we say it is some of our customers’ challenges are the traditional service providers making that link, and we are doing with them hand in hand. Sometimes, maybe it means that I’m disrupting my own business; but we are committed, even if it means we will distract some of our existing business to take this journey. You mentioned some of our customers that we announced in the past taking that journey while they’re building 5G infrastructure. Today, we have publicly announced the work that we are doing with Rakuten, building a multi-network running cloud, with the work that we are doing with T-Mobile, which is also publicly available, rolling out a 5G network nationwide

Daniel Newman: Yeah. And I’ve used that network and it’s pretty good. I had the chance to preview that network before it came out; and for everyone out there, there’s a lot to be excited about it. I ran around the country and there’s some tweets out there. I could actually find it if I go back into my history where I did speed tests and then I had the Samsung 10+, and I would just take the speed tests next to each other, and it was pretty impressive. The low band 5G is not necessarily going to give you the mind-blowing millimeter rate speed. But getting that 150, 200 megs… There’s not a lot you can’t do. There’s not a lot today. Now again, those new over-the-top services people much smarter than me are out there thinking about what’s going to be able to be done with that, but it is pretty exciting.

So I’m going to end it up with this question here, Masum, and thank you so much for the time. And thank you Cisco for contributing to at least part of this podcast. For service providers that are out there listening, we’ve talked a lot about the crisis and what’s going on, but this will be abated and there will be a future. There will be a sense of normalcy returned. It may never be exactly the same, but there will be a sense of normalcy return. What are you sort of advising SPs to think about today and into the future of their making decisions, in terms of how to upgrade and how to be more valuable to their customers?

Masum Mir: I think right now this is a good time for us to reflect what we are saying is not so normal. We’ll be looking into the deck, that is not normal today. It is not normal that I have to get work done without being at work, right? I need to make sure that I can do change management without being there. So what it means is, if we just reflect on the moment that we are living today, if you press forward, this is going to be the normal. We will not be visiting sites. We will not be [inaudible] to my design. We are not going to be reacting. We will be proactive. We’ll be building infrastructure. It’ll be a lot more nimbler. It’s a scale up and down, on demand, for automation. If I give one takeaway, given this moment, when we all get back to normal, what we are seeing abnormal is going to be the normal all the time in this digital world.

Daniel Newman: Yeah. I love it, awesome. I think you make a great point. I think there will be a new normal. I think we’re all a little bit perplexed as to what that will be, in the sense that we have a sense it’s going to be less and more like it is now, but it’ll be a blend of in-person and social. People have always wanted, needed, and desired to physically be present. I laugh, because that’s actually been a great product for a long time. You could do virtual meetings and events for a decade. There’s a reason we still went to events. There’s a reason Cisco still did live in Partner Summit, because people like to get together. But I think we’ve also learned, and I’ve seen this meme a few dozen times out there, but something like we’re going to really find out now if that meeting could have been an email. You know? The point is we’re going to find out that event could have been a web thing or a video call. Do we really need to fly across the country to have one meeting? I think we’re going to see businesses doing it a little bit different. Masum, I want to thank you so much for joining me here today on the Futurum Tech Podcast. It’s a great discussion. It’s great to have you, it’s great to have Cisco on the show.

Masum Mir: Thank you for having us. I wish everyone patience during this time. Hopefully, some of us who will be listening to it, by that time we are over this crisis, that you have learned something from this experience and we are preparing for the normal days.

Daniel Newman: Yeah, normalcy. Absolutely. No, no problem. Everybody out there that’s listening, check out the show notes. We’ll definitely include some resources and talk a little bit about what Cisco’s doing as part of the COVID-19, as well as a little bit more on the service provider business and some of the technologies that Masum mentioned throughout the show. Definitely hit that subscribe button and stick with us. Tune into our regular editions of the Futurum Tech Podcast, subscribe,  and check out our other interviews, as we’ve had many great guests and many really interesting people that you can learn from every day. But for now, for this show, for Daniel Newman and Futurum Research, I’m out of here.

This podcast is part of a special series focused around what leaders and companies are doing to help employees and customers deal with COVID-19. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on amazing insights.

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Image Credit: Cisco

About the Author

Daniel Newman is the Chief Analyst of Futurum Research and the CEO of The Futurum Group. Living his life at the intersection of people and technology, Daniel works with the world’s largest technology brands exploring Digital Transformation and how it is influencing the enterprise. Read Full Bio