It’s not the first sale of a product that defines your success in networking products, its the second – EtherealMind.
If you want to summarise Cisco’s networking dominance then perhaps it’s the simple fact that after you have bought, administered and managed their equipment, there is no reason not to purchase Cisco again. And then they become entrenched in your processes and procedures. At this point, I feel that Cisco doesn’t have to be better, they just have to be good enough to continue succeeding.
But what does HP have to do to be successful ? What can they do to appeal to the networking engineers, administrators and designers who are going to use their products everyday ? They are going to be concerned about career development and advancement, and will need to make a significant commitment to relearn or adapt their skills. How can HP overcome these objections to using their products ?
Here is my opinion after the HP Network Tech Day in Sacramento in August 2010.
Establish a world class education program
Many people have invested significant personal time and effort to master Cisco networking and passing various certifications. These education programs build much more than just vendor loyalty, they build lasting value for customers who have networks that:
- have more features and capability
- work more reliably
- are more adaptable
- are fixed more rapidly
- build employee loyalty and retention
- lower support and operational costs for HP
These outcomes are why business invest significant amounts in developing their human resources.
Many engineers are dependent on Cisco certifications for career development. And managers have responded by recognising certifications as milestones for financial recognition.
Cisco certified engineer will resist any use of HP equipment after they have committed significant time and resources to completing certifications. The use of top up or cross certifications that credit existing Cisco Certifications is move that encourages people to undertake HP certifications.
Note that this cross-certification also devalues the HP Networking branding of the exams and courseware.
Range of educational choices
It needs more than just a training course and an exam. The learning ecosystem needs textbooks and exam preparation materials from training companies. They should consider approaching Cisco training business that are disenfranchised with the current Cisco revenue model for training partners.
Overcoming the experience gap
Many people will object to using HP Networking on the basis that they have no experience on using the software. Of course, they aren’t going to use the software until you use the software. Although education programs can cross some of this gap, it doesn’t not address some vital operational challenges.
Many organisations have adopted ITIL processes concerning change management. This is usually results in pretesting and validation of any proposed change as a requirement and results in insidious damage to network upgrade requests by slowing down their ability to change the network.
For Networkers there is rarely a lab or test area available, compare this with MS Windows where anyone can install as many copies of MS Win2K3 as needed to test and prove a change. As a result, many network changes are not allowed or hard to get approved.
When engineers do not have the confidence to develop and use the advanced features, the value of your product is minimised and your sales diminish.
Release an Emulator
To break the cycle, HP Networking should release a version the Comware platform for use in some form of emulator that can be used to accompany training.
And don’t feature limit the software. Provide the full package with all the features. By all means cripple the performance for forwarding, but don’t limit the feature sets. Without access to the entire feature set, people aren’t going to use it.
Let me provide a use case: lets say you have large Core LAN and you want to change an 802.1d Spanning Tree configuration to use 802.1s MST. Such a change can easily shutdown the entire LAN network but the SLA means you cannot have an outage. With an emulator, you can develop a design, perform the migration until you are confident that you understand the technology and rehearse the changes.
At this point, you can get a change request approved because validation has been performed and execute the work with confidence. The engineer has fully engaged with HP Networking product and added significant value to the company by using enhanced features. You have also created customer loyalty and engagement on an enduring basis.
Its expensive providing loan equipment
Executives who doubt this suggestion should remember that providing loan equipment is an expensive proposition. An emulator is an instantly scalable solution that removes customer objection from the smallest to the largest customers.
There are two examples of successful emulators. The Cisco emulator using the dynamips software (neither endorsed or supported by Cisco) has created tremendous opportunities for people to develop skills, learn and study. Many organisations use this software to pre-test network changes today.
Also look at Vyatta, who provide an open source router that can easily be run in an emulated environment and is key value proposition for many customers.
Technical White Papers
The value of technical marketing is often misunderstood. The typical comment is that White Papers are never actually used because they don’t match the final deployed network. Counter-intuitively, this is exactly correct. No two customers are ever the same, and white papers are unlikely to address a spectrum of requirements.
However, network architects and designers use the white papers extensively as the first point of research for new features and capabilities. Human nature doesn’t like to admit that they don’t know something – pride / face etc so the real value is often obscured.
Let’s just say that competitors produce white papers and continue to do so despite the cost and time taken to produce them. They wouldn’t keep doing it if it wasn’t paying off.
And Don’t Hide Them
These white papers should not be secret. Don’t release them to partners only, or certified people, or some self selecting group. Don’t make people login to receive them (so that you can track who downloaded them).
Consider the following:
- Companies have policies that require any competitive research to kept private.
- Designers may be acting without approval and cannot flag their intention to Sales people
- It takes time to understand the problem before you engage the vendor. You can’t ask intelligent questions of a vendor until you have enough knowledge to be intelligent.(Catch-22)
- Many companies will regard such requests as leaking security details.
- It’s offensive
Make them freely available to anyone who wants to access them and keep them updated. Then we will feel confident that we understand your strategy.
Vitally important is that all documentation must be available on HTML and PDF format for searching and reading.If there is one thing I hate, it not being able to search online for content, but I also need the PDF file for offline storage and review.
Networking is a bit different
There is a divergence between networking products and server products. One of the larger challenges for HP will be to internally comprehend that difference and not get misaligned.
Because Cisco is challenging HP in one of their core areas of the servers, and because of the Virtual Connect products (being pseudo networking elements), it is possible that business management might perceive HP Networking products to be part of their server strategy and/or defending the server business.
However, Networking products have a key difference – software . The Comware and Procurve software platforms from the A and E series respectively, come bundled with and are intimately identified as “HP Products”. Compare with Microsoft Windows Server or Linux, where the server is sold as a hardware item only and the support and maintenance are not comprehensively HP product. OK, so the integration and compatibility has to be there but HP does not strategise, develop and release the software.
In this sense, Networking products are more similar to storage products where the division sells a strategy, roadmap and develops products internally. Although HP doesn’t tend to innovate on developing storage products, and prefers to buy established products such R9000 (Ibrix) and R4000 (Left Hand) and even possibly 3Par, they do continue to maintain the software.
If HP executives fail to grasp this difference (and I think they might), then HP Networking is likely to do less well.
Networking is an entire market segment not an “extension”. People will notice a lack of attention and stay away if HP doesn’t not attack the Networking market directly and engage fully. By all means sell the relationship that exists with the Server and Storage teams, but don’t fail to recognise that Networking is it’s own market place.
Don’t get inflated ideas about your product and attempt to price according to the Cisco RRP. Just because Cisco can make 80-90% profit margins on most networking products; this does not mean that HP can achieve anything similar.
Secondly, Cisco has much more to lose than HP. Cisco’s share price is intimately linked to its oversized profit margins. Any competitive selling price will result in Cisco reducing prices and thus validating HP Networking as a viable competitor.
In a certain sense, the features on the products aren’t vital if all other areas are addressed. The success of the ProCurve networking products is proves that simple, cost effective and reasonably stable products will work for many customers. HP is going to get reasonably good sales just by offering a product (same as Cisco is getting server sales just by offering a server product, some people align completely with certain vendors).
The key factor is that they work reliably. For example, Huawei has been criticised many times for poor reliability and bad software, and there is growing resistance to using their products. It’s isn’t usually vocalised by customers as “your product is rubbish” but people can find any number of reasons and methods to not buy a specific product.
Given that I haven’t had a detailed look at the products, I can’t make any comments about whether they are worthy contenders. Certainly, the product range is wide, although short on firewalls and some other elements.
The EtherealMind View
HP has a solid foundation on which to build a successful business unit. The people I met have a strategy that addresses concerns that I would have at a business level, either as a reseller partner or as a customer and HP has a reputation for delivering products that customer will use. They may not always be “sexy shiny exciting“ but they are one the biggest server vendors because they deliver good products at good price.
While the potential is clear, the next step is to see whether the products are worthy. And that’s going to take some time to see how people’s experiences are shaped, and how many ‘war stories’ we hear, and whether the products continue to develop. The devil is now in the detail, and for engineers like me, execution matters.
HP Networking Tech Day is sponsored the flights, travel and accommodation for this event. I am not required to write or podcast about the event and am free to share my own thoughts and perceptions. As if I’d do anything different. I am not paid for my time and do not receive any payment for service.