The Story Behind the Internet’s Real Superpower

Making the Cisco Connection by David Bunnell

Far beneath the pavement of your browser lies an infrastructure of “switches,” “routers,” and other electronic devices that directs all the data streams to their proper destinations — the so-called “plumbing” of the Internet that allows my deathless content to spurt onto your PC. Like all things ‘e’, plumbing is also fast becoming the monopoly of a single company, a $300 billion behemoth called Cisco Systems that is to hardware what Microsoft is to software and Amazon is to retailing. In Making the Cisco Connection, Upside magazine editor David Bunnell and his co-writer Adam Brate chronicle the rise of this low profile but many-tentacled octopus.

Cisco began as a stereotypical high-tech startup in 1984, when two Stanford University systems managers walked off with a data routing device, developed largely by others, and started their own company to sell it. Three years later, a venture capitalist was brought in, and two years after that the founders were kicked out by the professional managers now running the place. The explosive growth, first of corporate PC networks, and then of the Web, kept demand for Cisco’s network traffic-control equipment at astronomical levels.

As it grew, Cisco faced a dilemma. How could it swell into a bloated corporate leviathan without losing the innovative entrepreneurialism of a high-tech startup? The solution proved surprisingly straightforward: buy up other high-tech startups. Bunnell and Brate call this practice “innovation by acquisition,” and with this strategy Cisco has swept a huge quantity of dot-com plankton into its gaping maw. Through it all, Cisco’s switches have gotten faster, its routers smarter, its networks more sprawling and omni-compatible, and its software more industry-standard.

Unfortunately, there is a reason that plumbing contractors are rarely the subjects of corporate histories. The glitzy, pornographic, auction-house superstructure of the Internet is intrinsically interesting, but the nerdy, machine-code infrastructure is not, and Bunnell and Brate do little to make it livelier.

Bunnell was a personal computing pioneer. In the mid-70s he was working in Albuquerque for MITS, where his duties were to market something called the Altair 8800 — the world’s first personal computer. The programming language for the 8800 was known as Altair BASIC and its authors were a couple fellows called Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Bunnell would go on to found not just Inside but PC Magazine, PC World and Macworld.

Despite this deep experience in tech publishing — or perhaps because of it — the prose here is a jumble of baffling acronyms. Phrases like IPs and ATMs and LANs and WANs explain next to nothing about the technologies that underlie the Net. The authors also give exhaustive dissections of Cisco’s ever-shifting organization chart and its many mergers and restructurings, along with a truly mind-numbing account of a corporate-wide database upgrade, all discussed at a level of detail that ends up missing the forest for the bark.

David Bunnell.

Few but industry analysts and management consultants will feel like wading through this. Nor does much insight arise from all the minutiae, since the authors are about as critical as a Cisco press release. Smitten with the “soft tenor drawl” and “childlike, pure blue eyes” of CEO John Chambers, they accept the company culture of “working crazy hours because you want to” at face value. Devoid of the madness and bankruptcy that is the stuff of great corporate history, the book leaves us to contemplate Chambers’ bland assurances that “nice people can win.”

Still, if there is a little bit of the network administrator in you, you may be stirred by this tale. Like any self-respecting CEO, Chambers has a rhapsodic vision about the seamless techno-cocoon that we will all soon be living in. Someday, Chambers vows, the now separate telephone, cable TV and Internet data networks will “converge” into a single fiber-optic network supported by Cisco equipment. That’s right — out of several different networks — one big network.

It took a while for the significance of this to dawn on me, too, but according to Chambers, it means, at the very least, free long-distance. Expanding on his vision, Bunnell and Brate foretell that the ubiquitous network will soon “erase distance and blur hierarchies.” Most importantly, once we are all hooked up it will finally “make sense” to live in “smart houses” where “the refrigerator, cupboards, and trash could work together to replenish food supplies by reordering from the supermarket automatically.”

Presumably, even our toilets and shower stalls will become self-aware. Plumbing will rule the world.

Making the Cisco Connection: The Story Behind the Real Internet Superpower by David Bunnell, with Adam Brate (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

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