Cisco will be hard pressed to match 2009

2009 started with a bang and ended with a bash for Cisco.

The company entered the data center blade server market in the beginning of the year and ended the year with two acquisitions worth a combined $6.3 billion. The acquisitions made Cisco the market leader in videoconferencing and allowed it to address the LTE market for 4G mobile Internet applications.

Cisco also ended 2009 by celebrating its 25th anniversary.

So Cisco entered at least three new markets in 2009. Sandwiched in between were some significant events designed to keep the company at the forefront of the industry, such as smart grid initiatives for cities and homes; the purchase of a pocket camcorder company to drive bandwidth-consuming video traffic; a significant refresh of its wildly successful branch router line; and formation of a joint venture company with EMC to accelerate adoption of their respective data center products.

“It was a pretty enlightening year,” says Catharine Trebnick of Avian Securities, who attributes Cisco's multidimensional advances to the company's management-by-council structure.

“When you do four acquisitions in a quarter — two of them multibillion dollar — you really do have to have your teams moving in a couple of directions. And you have to coordinate them. That's a perfect example of how they've been utilizing cross-functional teams.”

January saw Cisco make a major move into digital home entertainment, long the domain of Sony and Apple. The company rolled out the Linksys Wireless Home Audio and Media hub system, and an operating system, called EOS, specifically for digital media and entertainment.

The moves are intended to make Cisco a leading provider of Internet-based content, media and entertainments platforms.

Cisco also acquired Richards-Zeta Building Intelligence, a provider of middleware that enables businesses to integrate building infrastructure and IT applications.

In February, Cisco made the first of its smart buildings/cities moves for the year by introducing the “intelligent urbanization” blueprint for integrated city management. The blueprint proposes using a Cisco network as a utility for public safety and security, transportation, buildings, energy, healthcare and education.

March saw perhaps Cisco's most ambitious and controversial product launch ever: the Unified Computing System, an integrated network, server, virtualization and storage access platform that ushers Cisco into the blade server market. UCS strains relations with longtime partners and server vendors HP, IBM and Dell — especially HP, as its own server/network/virtual connect play takes a direct hit. But Cisco believes the UCS proposition is so compelling that it's willing to forego about $2 billion in annual revenue from the server OEM channel for the eventual payback from UCS.

Another ambitious move was made in March with the purchase of Pure Digital, maker of the Flip handheld video recorder. Cisco's hoping the $500+ million investment will deliver some payback as video traffic fills network capacity and necessitates infrastructure upgrades. Currently though, Flip is a one-trick video pony — it faces competition from smartphones, such as the iPod and BlackBerry, that can do the same thing and more.

In April, Cisco's smart grid initiatives bore fruit with a $200 million project for the City of Miami. Cisco, along with GE, Florida Power & Light and Silver Spring Networks, will deploy more than 1 million wireless “smart meters” to homes and businesses in Miami-Dade County to provide information on energy usage, efficiency and reliability.

April saw Cisco acquire Tidal Software for data center automation software; announce pricing for UCS; and roll out cloud-based security services.

In May, Cisco formally announced it Smart Grid initiative to supply utilities with upgraded, IP-based communications infrastructures. Cisco said at the time that smart grids were a $20 billion opportunity. Later, Cisco upped that outlook to $100 billion and said the opportunity was orders of magnitude greater than that of the Internet.

Also that month, Cisco became the supplier of choice for Clearwire's WiMAX buildout. It also packaged up UCS for service providers by bundling it with its Nexus 7000 data center switch and CRS-1 router.

June saw Cisco roll out rack mount servers for UCS; win a deal to outfit the Dallas Cowboy's new stadium with video; and extend smart grid plans in a deal with Duke Energy. Cisco stretched smart grid even further in July with the Smart Connected Buildings plan to upgrade the energy usage, measurement and management communications infrastructure of commercial buildings.

In August, Cisco announced a customer for UCS: Tutor Perini, a $5 billion construction management firm in California. Cisco also landed a deal with Warner Music Group for its EOS entertainment platform; and announced a 160Gbps Ethernet — 16x10G — module for its ASR 9000 edge router.

September was pretty quiet — the only Cisco “event” was the introduction of the TelePresence 1100 system for intercompany collaboration. But October was anything but quiet.

Cisco announced plans to acquire three companies in October: Norwegian videoconferencing leader Tandberg; wireless gateway maker Starent Networks; and Web messaging security company ScanSafe. Tandberg and Starent together cost Cisco $6.3 billion and allowed the company to enter two key markets — low-end and mid-range videoconferencing, to fill a big TelePresence gap; and an enhanced packet core for LTE 4G wireless, a market Cisco was not able to adequately address before.

Cisco would have its hands full with Tandberg, however. Cisco faced resistance from about a third of Tandberg's shareholders who felt the company was being undervalued. Cisco ultimately hiked its offer and won over 90% of the shareholders by the end of the year.

October also saw Cisco refresh its Integrated Services Router line, a product that sold 7 million units since being introduced in 2004. ISR G2, as it is called, is optimized for video and virtualized services, and the foundation of a new Cisco strategy called Borderless Networks — anywhere, anytime, any device access to anything.

In November, Cisco and EMC launched an anticipated joint venture to offer integrated data center/cloud computing products and services. The joint venture company, Acadia, has a board comprised of Cisco and EMC executives and is charged with accelerating the adoption of technologies offered by the Virtual Computing Environment coalition of Cisco, EMC and VMware. Key products from the VCE coalition are Vblocks, which are pre-integrated and packaged data center compute, storage, network and virtualization systems comprised of Cisco's UCS, EMC storage arrays and Vmware virtualization software.

In introducing VCE, Vblocks and Acadia, Cisco says the market for this venture is $350 billion.

Also in November, Cisco acquired the set-top box business of DVN, a provider of digital cable systems to the Chinese market.

Cisco wrapped up a busy and important 2009 by celebrating its 25th anniversary in December. It will be interesting to see what the next 25 years — starting in 2010 — will bring for Cisco and the industry.

“Who are they going to buy in FY'10, and why?” Avain Securities' Trebnick asks. “Cisco is still talking M&A.”

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