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Cisco releases IOx, a router OS, to fuel deployment of IoT

Cisco releasing IOx, a router operating system that will let companies run their own applications on the vendor's edge routers.

Cisco developed a new router operating system for its industrial routers that supports the Internet of Things.

One of the challenges in the IoT world is that everything is custom-created.
Steve HiltonMachNation

The new operating system, dubbed IOx, will be available later this year as a free software upgrade for Cisco's 819 and 1240 routers, with other edge devices getting IOx support later in 2014 and 2015.

The router OS, a blend of Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS) and Linux, allows developers to run their own applications on Cisco's edge routers, in the process transforming them from individual devices into a customized and distributed computer infrastructure.

The goal, said Guido Jouret, general manager of Cisco's Internet of Things (IoT) Group, is to permit IoT applications to perform actions and analytics closer to where events actually occur, and to allow companies to write their own code instead of waiting for an IOS upgrade.

Ubiquitous connections would flood current architectures

"People want to connect all sorts of devices, but the world of connectivity is very diverse," Jouret said. "We're calling it 'BYOI,' for bring your own interface. You can now have whatever IO interface you like and as long as you have a way of talking to it and you can compile it and port it to a Linux environment. It will take hours to run; it won't take months or years to get deployed. That's very powerful because [customers] can do it on their own and they don't need Cisco to do anything for them; they can use one of our products and do that."

Without such a router OS, Jouret said the amount of data generated by the 50 billion IoT devices expected to be in operation by 2020 would quickly overwhelm networks as they all attempt to communicate with cloud- or data center-based servers.

Cisco placing another big bet on IoT

With the IOx router OS, Cisco is doubling down its bet on IoT -- the concept in which billions of devices from appliances to medical devices become Internet-aware, said Steve Hilton, managing director of Boston-based consultancy and analytics firm MachNation.

The coming challenge of IoT

The framework "gives developers a fast application development environment, and using Linux as the programmers' space is great," he said. "One of the challenges in the IoT world is that everything is custom-created. With this, Cisco is saying we will use existing IT tools and languages the IT world already understands" to permit developers to quickly build programs. In addition, the rugged hardware upon which IOx runs "is field tested," Hilton said, providing a layer of familiarity and comfort to companies and developers marketing IoT devices to businesses and consumers.

With IOx, companies can build apps that place at the edge the analytics necessary to determine if an action must be taken. An ambulance equipped with a Cisco 819 router running an application created with IOx, for example, could communicate with Cisco 1240 routers managing traffic signals, ensuring that it has green lights as it travels from the accident scene to the hospital. In the event a router governing a traffic signal doesn't respond, or fails, other routers would pick up the slack, Jouret said.

IOx represents a departure from traditional IT models

The platform departs from the traditional IT model, where data generated by an application must travel from endpoint to server before it can be acted upon.

"It provides faster analytics and faster decision making," Hilton said. "These devices have embedded storage and compute in them. The whole concept of bringing everything back to a central point in the cloud [before a response can be generated] may not always be the best way."

Cisco last summer created a special business unit devoted to IoT, staffing it with some 500 employees and staking it with $200 million in research and development funding. CEO John Chambers said the IoT market represents a $14 trillion global revenue opportunity for companies that invest in it.

In addition to IOx, Cisco said it will add to its existing app store IOx applications that will permit companies to further fine-tune the vendor's edge devices with features and capabilities they wish to add.

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Great concept, highly questionable model, IMHO. Applications can be built and run on the Cisco edge devices, great. Companies can roll their own, and allow action to be taken without going all the way back to a server in a data center. The two big problems here are a) who builds the app, and 2) depending on the answer to that question, will companies be comfortable "taking action" based on that application? What I mean is this - in the example given, a Cisco router on an ambulance talks to an edge router controlling traffic lights to clear the way in an emergency. But if that application is written by someone, some entity, that lacks the scale and expertise to build and test a reliable application, is anyone going to be comfortable abdicating control of traffic lights, and therefore public safety, to that application? I doubt it. Now maybe it's just a bad example, but this smacks of being another example of a platform strategy that sounds great, and can be realized in the way it's being discussed. To be a successful "platform" is in my opinion one of the most difficult business hat tricks to pull off...and it's not done in one swoop. You need installed base - OK, in Cisco's case, I think we can safely check that box. You also need a group of people with the capacity, skills and willingness to monetize development on that platform, and customers willing to invest to support that monetization. This will not come from customers rolling their own tools. Rather, to be successful, companies in the business of developing applications will need to decide that building for this platform is an investment with an attractive ROI. And there's another issue - and it relates to the notion of "automating action" in mission-critical networks or situations. As those of us who have rattled around the networking and security space for a couple of decades know, automation is a great concept that is spooky as hell to most folks looking to implement it; particularly when it is automation driven by "analytics". Why? Because most analytics, at least in a network and security sense, are guessing. Take the following example: based on what a SIEM or an IDS platform is supposed to do, it's not a huge leap to say that a company could configure a SIEM or IDS to automatically (either directly or through some operations and management platform) drive rule changes or inject ACL updates directly into a switch or a firewall, without a ton of human intervention. Is anyone doing this - driving directly from analytics to action on the network without someone, often many people, eyeballing it? I haven't seen it, personally. And I think it's because people know that those analytics products do not have all the facts - they're crunching data, correlating and guessing at what might be going on. And you're average IT guy is too protective of his own hide to implement automated changes in a mission critical network or network-based application based on a guess...even a very educated one. The first step toward the realization of real automation is enabling reliable, iron-clad accuracy in the analytics that propose to drive the automated action. With the growing complexity and utilization in large networks, that's a tall order.

Can Cisco be successful with this? Well, I'm loathe to bet against them. But a few really key, non-trivial things need to fall into place before their vision can be realized.
Running applications on the router sounds more like a ONE/OnePK function that is more or less mandatory for all Cisco devices so that applications like Prime and ACI can orchestrate then. The running of applications on the router has been part of that specification since the outset, this is just exposing the feature in a new context.

Nothing new here, please move in except that it's happening at the very low end. And _that_ the benefit of Linux as an operating system. Good stuff.