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How and Why We Created “Software Defined Networking for Dummies”

April 16, 2015 - 13 Comments

SDN for DummiesLast week we launched our new book, Software Defined Networking for Dummies, which I wrote the vast majority of and was responsible for producing. And the response to date has been far more enthusiastic than even I anticipated. The feedback from the Cisco field has been great, and there is strong demand for reprints across all regions and localization in a number of languages. [Printed copies can now be ordered from the Cisco Collateral Store at nominal cost here.]

Naturally, we’ve also gotten a number of questions, such as “Does this mean we think SDN is for Dummies?”, “Do we think our customers are Dummies?”, “Why did Cisco decide to leverage the Dummies brand for this topic?”, etc. In order to clear some of this up, the social media team asked me to write a bit of the backstory of the creation of the book, why we decided to do it, and why it’s proving to be such a popular asset.

It all started when I was looking to fill a large gap in Cisco product marketing, particularly around SDN and our Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). SDN has certainly proven to be a revolutionary break from traditional networking architectures and is really changing the way organizations think about their IT processes and how they design data centers. With all this change, it’s been hard for a lot of people to get their heads around what this new technology trend is really all about. When Cisco introduced ACI as a very sophisticated and comprehensive SDN solution, there’s no doubt it took people a lot of time to understand ACI, how it was similar to SDN, and where it was introducing new innovative concepts. 

When Cisco does marketing launches or product collateral, we often get caught up in focusing just on what’s new and what’s different, and we don’t take the time to set the context, or provide the background information to absorb the new product details. Especially with ACI, we were always challenged to simplify the message, and make it more palatable for a less technical audience. We probably focused too much on the competitive positioning and the visionary features. We also realized that some of our traditional field and partner organizations, who have always been immersed in hardware sales, were having a harder time with the transition to predominantly software solutions and the value propositions that SDN was bringing.

I personally went through several rounds of working with leaders from the field in simplifying the ACI story, but I was really looking for a vehicle that I could really start from scratch and tell the long story of SDN, and provide a real training guide to bring everyone up to speed on this new technology evolution, including how our own products deliver on that vision. I wanted a format that would allow more space than a 10-page white paper to give all the background, perspective and context for our field and partners, as well as customers to really understand ACI in ways that we were challenged to deliver in the past. I often used blogs (like this one) to educate audiences on some of the basics of new technology to further our marketing, but the much shorter blog format requires that you write a lot of blogs to cover all the angles.

So, I was primed thinking that Cisco needed to take a different approach for telling the SDN and ACI story when at a trade show last year (as I recall it was VMworld), I got handed a copy of a Dummies book from another data center vendor (Simplivity’s “HyperConverged Infrastructure for Dummies”). I immediately recognized this would be an interesting way to tell our SDN story in a longer, more educational format. I knew of the Dummies brand, and they covered a wide range of topics, but I didn’t know they did these shorter length sponsored editions which could be handed out freely. Since I enjoy writing, I thought this could be a cool project.

I ran the idea by a few folks around Cisco, and received a relatively lukewarm response. Not everyone thought this was the most urgent initiative we needed to pursue with our limited marketing dollars. Plus, I actually thought the Cisco brand team would not approve of combining our brand with Wiley’s Dummies brand, or the final product wouldn’t conform to our style guidelines somehow. I had run into trouble before with some video projects. But I turned out to be wrong, and they had no trouble with the whole Dummies concept at all.

I contacted the Wiley & Sons sponsored publications team and got a formal quote for what we initially wanted to do, but I still thought it was a longshot to get this project off the ground. When we got some discretionary marketing budget at the beginning of Q2, I pitched the idea a bit stronger, and our new marketing VP seemed to really be on board with the concept and the freshness of the idea. At that point, we were really off to the races.

One of the only challenges I faced was trying to incorporate the myriad of SDN visions and projects across Cisco into one consolidated document. Being part of the data center and ACI marketing team, I was certainly more biased and knowledgeable in that direction. But by working with a number of other teams (who expressed various levels of interest) I think I inserted at least a solid mention of most of Cisco’s SDN-related technology. Ultimately, though, 80% of the book is not about Cisco, but the history and benefits of SDN and not trying to be a product pitch anyway.

So, this brings us to some of the questions we’ve been getting about leveraging the “Dummies” brand, and why not just have Cisco press publish the book, or why we thought the Dummies brand would help with the marketing and promotion of the book. The first notion to dispel is anything like we consider our customers and prospects “Dummies”. In fact, if anything, early reviews tell me that portions of the book are still pretty technical and require a good deal of data center expertise. Which is fine with me. I think there is something in here for every level. But the Dummies brand does carry a certain recognizable appeal, and I think people are more likely to look to it for neutral, unbiased educational material. The fact is that the Dummies brand works because of its broad penetration and appeal, and has become extremely popular for many other data center and networking vendors to leverage, such as (just to name a few that I’ve run across since starting this project):

  • VMware: Virtualization 2.0 for Dummies
  • Avaya: VoIP for Dummies
  • Riverbed: Application Performance Management for Dummies
  • Tegile: Flash Storage for Virtualization for Dummies
  • Nutanix: Software-Defined Storage for Dummies
  • Palo Alto Networks: Network Security for Virtualized Data Centers for Dummies
  • Google: Connecting People Using Google for Dummies

One of the things that I’ve learned in my various marketing positions is that one of the best forms of marketing you can do is offering prospects free education. It’s a great way to engage them early, and when they have a specific need, prospects usually come back to the credible source they’ve worked with already. That’s certainly the approach many financial, legal and real estate professionals use when soliciting clients, and to a lesser extent it still works in high-tech. At any rate, I’m very encouraged by the enthusiastic response I’ve been getting from the Cisco field that they finally have something like this to give away to prospects and engage customers on a sales journey.

One SE, Kamran Habib from Melbourne, even took the time to create a companion PowerPoint presentation to share with customers and walk them through the highlights of the book. (Cisco account teams can download that presentation here, and below is the public slideshare.)

But what really caught me by surprise was the immediate demand for hard copies, to hand out liberally at regional events and on sales calls. I set up the Cisco Media Store to sell hard copies in quantities from 1 to about 200 at a very nominal costs just to recover our printing costs. If you are a Cisco employee or partner, make sure to login at the top of the Store page to get your discounted pricing. For larger orders, Cisco employees and partners can contact me directly and I can arrange a reprint run by the publisher at potentially a lower cost. We’re already exploring localization into some European, Latin American and Asian languages, so look for translations in the next few months.

Finally, I can’t say enough about how easy it was to work with the Wiley & Sons publishing team. They really helped streamline the process and offered great insights and best practices to incorporate into the book. We’re already thinking of the next set of topics to convert to Dummies books here at Cisco. Maybe “Internet of Everything for Dummies”, or “OpenStack for Dummies”. Who knows? What great ideas would you like to see?

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  1. Making technologies User Friendly is the way to increase and promote adoption. I really like and support any “for Dummies” initiative. Really a good idea 🙂

  2. Would love to see an “OpenStack for Dummies” e-book!

  3. Great idea and congratulations!

    • Thanks Joann! I’m glad you thought it was a good idea. I’ll be waiting for “Cloud Automation Tools for Dummies” out of your team. 🙂

  4. This is a great idea and truly exemplifies thinking outside the box. What a great tool for many executives to be able to see the greater picture and the future of networking..

  5. Thanks for sharing the backstory Gary. It’s fascinating how these things come to life – and congrats on getting it all past brand! 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed it Tina! Thanks for all the help in promoting the book through Social Media.

  6. I am glad you wrote this. I think it will make SDN more accessible to people inside and outside of Cisco.

  7. Good reading for the ones looking into SDN and NFV space.

  8. Fantastic work you did there! Technologies are evolving so fast that is difficult for the IT/Server/Network admins to even understand the problems they have or even realize they are not alone in trying to solve them. When solutions hit the market, the buzz words hit the market, how can they play catchup?

    Sometimes we get so exited about the solution that we forget that the basis for understanding the solutions are not there. This kind of book is a great tool to quickly get up to speed with the problem and learn how it is been solved, and to highlight the approach of a particular solution.

    Congratulations to you (and the ones that gave the go ahead in Cisco) for starting this kind of work to provide the background necessary to understand innovative solutions. Some other topics that I would suggest for the future are:

    – network programability (Having so may APIs and SDKs across platforms, what does it solves? why not being more vocal about it?)

    – hybrid clouds (the industry talks about elasticity and hybrid clouds, but stop there. Why so little information on solutions to actually implement them?) Well, you get the idea.


  9. Gary – it is admirable how many hoops you have gone through to get this book out. Congrats, and a great asset

  10. Thanks Rex, I will try, but I get writer’s cramp easily. Should be OK for a few copies. 🙂

  11. Kudos, Gary! This is a really effective asset. Assuming we will have an autograph signing session @ Cisco Live! San Diego?