If 2023 was the year that saw artificial intelligence (AI) transform software and digital services, the coming year will see an increasing focus on hardware and infrastructure.
At the Cisco Live conference in Amsterdam last week, the global networking equipment leader unveiled new capabilities in security and automation that would help make AI part of the fabric of business operations. The event attracted 14,000 information technology professionals, representing an industry that is impatient to see generative AI move from a consumer fascination to a boardroom priority.
Several keynote addresses suggested that moment had arrived.
“There is no AI without a network,” said Jonathan Davidson, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco Networking during his address. “It’s like driving a Formula One race car: you are in control of something revolutionary, as long as the car is not controlling you, and you need a pit crew that can make split second decisions.
“For AI, think of us as watching the road ahead for you. We give you insights to avoid threats and anything that is going to slow you down. To do this, we are simplifying and securing networking everywhere for everyone at every scale. The platform is powered by AI to simplify, secure and scale your operations across the entire network infrastructure.”
Cisco’s president for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Oliver Tuszik, said that the opportunity to power progress had never been greater.
“In an unpredictable world, technology is at the forefront of solving whatever challenges we may face,” he said. “With AI, we see infinite possibilities and a future that’s more efficient, more innovative and benefits everyone. We have the infrastructure to power AI, the portfolio optimised to secure it, the visibility and tools to ensure the best user experience and the expertise to help our customers get the outcomes they need.”
Tuszik said in his keynote that, in recent days, every conversation with customers starts: “How can we have the infrastructure? How can we make it ready for a future world that I’m hearing about? How can we make it secure? How do we create the best application experience? What do I need to do to empower my users?”
The questions echo the new Cisco AI Readiness Index, which surveyed more than 8,000 private sector, business and IT leaders across 30 countries. It found that, while 95% of respondents had an AI strategy in place or under development, only 14 percent were ready to integrate AI into their businesses.
The key reason was not lack of readiness to use AI, but lack of infrastructure. That was a word that cropped up almost as frequently as AI in discussions at the event.
In response to the need, Cisco has unveiled new technologies to help businesses develop and optimise infrastructure to support AI. Among these, it has announced an AI and machine learning (ML) blueprint for data centre networks, and new hardware products for environments where customers need connectivity and AI at the edge – the endpoints furthest from data centres.
It has also extended a long-running partnership with Nvidia, which in the past year has been propelled into the elite of tech companies with a market value of more than a trillion dollars, thanks to its cutting edge graphics processing units (GPUs) – computer chips that have underpinned the generative AI revolution.
Cisco and Nvidia this week announced plans to deliver AI infrastructure solutions for data centres that are easy to deploy and manage, enabling the massive computing power that enterprises will need as they deploy their own AI solutions.
Davidson told Business Times that Cisco had been working with the chipmaker to make sure it had the full Nvidia portfolio at its disposal. He also believed Cisco was central to Nvidia’s continued success.
“We want to make it really easy for our customers to take the Nvidia GPUs that are in our servers, as well as storage, as well as the networking infrastructure, as well as the software on top of that, and wrap that all together in a single package.
“We have a Cisco validated design for that. Nvidia is doing great, their numbers are great, but they don’t have 16,000 or 18,000 resellers like Cisco has, so I think we have a big opportunity to be able to help them go into the broad-based enterprise market.”
Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, told Business Times that providing effective infrastructure for AI-specific workloads and data centre configurations was a very natural evolution for his organisation.
“We power a lot of the world’s data centres; we power a lot of the world’s enterprises with a networking fabric and security capability and observability capability. There are going to be unique requirements for AI.
“One beauty about what’s happening with generative AI is that in the past, humans needed to learn the language of machines. And now, machines are learning the language of humans. That changes all assumptions we’ve made about what is in the bounds of possibility for getting to have 8-billion people effectively use computing, and use it efficiently and more naturally.”
Cisco Live also saw the company enter the generative AI race in its own right. It launched a platform called Motific, which allows for “trustworthy generative AI deployments in organisations”.
The platform has emerged from Cisco’s incubation division called Outshift, which builds solutions for emerging tech needs in areas such as security, AI, and quantum computing.
Papi Menon, vice president and chief product officer of Outshift, told Business Times that the division wanted to push the boundaries of what Cisco could do.
‘Any enterprise at scale today should be thinking about how to use generative AI to serve their businesses and serve their customers better. I don’t think this is restricted to any particular type of enterprise. Every enterprise should be worried about it.”