Arik Hesseldahl

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John Chambers Says Cisco Systems Is “Tough to Beat”

chambers380It says a lot about the state of expectations in IT spending that shares of networking giant Cisco Systems would rise by nearly 9 percent in after-hours trading on the heels of quarterly results that just barely beat analysts’ expectations.

By 7:30 pm ET, Cisco shares had risen to $23.06, having closed at $21.21 during the regular session. Its results, reported earlier today, were only slightly ahead of the consensus view, but as with so many things today, slightly good is good enough.

The better news is that Cisco has historically been a pretty good barometer on the state of the tech economy generally. What it sees in its results, good or bad, is what other companies usually see within a couple of quarters.

“Slow and steady growth” was the phrase of the day. Sales grew by slightly more than 5 percent, but several segments grew faster. Service revenue grew by more than 7 percent year on year, while sales of products grew 5 percent.

Products sold into data centers, mainly servers in Cisco’s UCS line, grew by a healthy 77 percent, but accounted for only $515 million, or slightly more than 4 percent of sales. Wireless sales grew by 27 percent, but at $523 million weren’t much bigger as a percentage of revenue.

Service provider video grew 30 percent, accounting for nearly $1.3 billion in sales. And at least part of that growth can be attributed to NDS, the Israeli software company for which Cisco paid $5 billion last year.

In switching, Cisco’s biggest business segment, sales were $3.4 billion, down 2 percent year on year, but when you compare that to the results of other networking companies like Juniper, Riverbed and F5 Networks that have been reporting more difficult quarters in recent weeks and months, a drop of 2 percent isn’t so bad.

I just got off the phone with Cisco CEO — and D: All Things Digital speaker — John Chambers. A quick summary of our conversation is below:

AllThingsD: John, it felt like a fairly positive quarter in a tough environment. What’s really going on?

Chambers: I’d break it into four pieces. First, it was our ninth consecutive quarter with record revenue. And it was the sixth where earnings grew faster than revenue. That’s a pretty good indicator that we’re growing well in a tough environment. Secondly, we’ve moved from being the No. 1 communications company to having a shot at being the No. 1 IT company at the moment when those two things will actually combine. … It’s that transition that we now have in front of us that’s kind of exciting. It also says that we’re in the right technologies: Cloud, data center, mobility, video. We’re also the thought leader on the Internet of everything, which will be the next major transition for the enterprise and service providers. The fourth one was the geographic breakdown. I don’t think anyone saw as strong a set of numbers in the U.S. as we did, and it was across all market segments. Public sector grew 5 percent, enterprise grew 10 percent, commercial grew 13 percent, service providers grew 10 percent. It means that our relevance is changing. It also means that, barring a surprise, the U.S. economy is going to continue to recover at this pace. And it has to for the rest of the world to come out of all this.

Let’s talk about IT. If you’re becoming more of a general IT player, if you see yourself shaking up that business, then who do you see yourself taking business away from?

In the data center, it’s clearly the IBMs, the Hewlett-Packards and the Dells of the world. In the wireless space, it’s often the startups or some of the traditional players. It wasn’t so long ago that startups like Aruba were awfully tough on us. In the data center with software and hardware and silicon coming together, there’s the people who think it’s going to be a software-only world [like Big Switch –Ed.]. We think it’s an architectural play that we’re going to win on. So our competitors are different in every category, but that’s what you want. If the customers are going to buy an architecture that solves a business problem and you’re the only major supplier that crosses the service provider and the enterprise and commercial segments, and you go from the cloud and hybrid clouds to the data centers, and reach any device and you’re agnostic about whatever device it is, that is a strong position to be in.

And still one of your biggest segments, switching, was down slightly. What’s going on there?

It has been a tough environment there. As you know, our industry peers have had terrible year-to-date numbers on their stocks. When I look at the F5s and Junipers and Riverbeds of the world, you’re seeing them surprising the market and declines in their share prices. Same thing with the IT players. We’re one of the few players that hit and exceed expectations in that category. So it speaks to our relevance changing. If you’re selling standalone products, the market gets really tough. And speaking of our competitors, a lot of them said they never saw us coming. We’re pretty good at flying under the radar at first and then blowing right by, and then being tough. We’re really tough to beat.

It’s at this point that I pick a song that I think best portrays Cisco’s results. It has become a little tradition that I began when Cisco started to turn around after another sequence of disappointing quarters, and when we talk, Chambers always asks about it.

With the phrase “slow and steady” appearing so much in Chambers’ comments, and with the quarter’s results generally feeling upbeat, I thought the muscular 1971 Aretha Franklin classic “Rock Steady” fit the bill. Here it is.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus