Cisco morphs in face of the coronavirus pandemic

Chuck Robbins/Cisco
Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins says the company's Webex video conferencing platform is seeing unprecedented growth due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Cisco)

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is multi-faceted for Cisco as it works to keep both its employees safe and its customers connected. During a Bloomberg interview Wednesday morning, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins spoke about the impact of COVID-19, which included a shift in Cisco's supply chain strategy and how its Webex video platform is being used.

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"We've seen unprecedented volumes," Robbins said of Cisco's Webex usage. "We are critical infrastructure for working from home and for the internet service providers that are servicing all of us who are working from home. I'll give you some statistics. We launched both free cloud security offers and free WebEx offers, and in the first 24 hours of putting that offer out we had 240,000 new users sign up.

"This (Webex) is a platform that before this crisis was running 300 million users per month. We're now doing four and a half million meetings a day and that doesn't even include one-on-ones (meetings) that are occurring on the platform. We're at 12 billion meeting minutes through March so far. And just to put it in perspective in the United States, during any one hour period, we will do 100 million meeting minutes."

Robbins said Cisco's employees have done yeoman's work in supporting the Webex platform that is doing four to five times the volume that "it was ever built for four weeks ago."

Robbins said the volume of Webex users caused him to call one of the major service providers in the U.S. at 6 p.m. one evening to ask for additional capacity.

"By midnight they had done the work and increased the capacity," he said. "We've had tremendous relationships with the large service providers around the world and they've been incredible partners for us."

The large influx of work-from-home (WFH) employees has driven service providers to turn up bandwidth in certain areas as the coronavirus spreads, or rules, such as shelter in place, change, according to Cisco's Kevin Wollenweber, vice president of service provider networking.

"It's a very fluid situation," Wollenweber said. "We started with mandatory work from home policies that some companies implemented a couple of weeks ago. A week later, we started to see that first shelter in place policies, and now California, along with a few other states, is completely shut down."

Now that service providers have seen how shelter-in-place and quarantine policies in states such as California and New York have impacted their networks, they're better prepared to add capacity in other states as needed.

"We're seeing a reaction where a lot of them are looking to augment capacity and kind of get ahead of the next wave of capacity demand," Wollenweber said.  "And then you're also seeing things like caching and pushing content deeper into the (edge) network. It's still going to congest on certain last mile or certain end user connections. But being able to push that content deeper and deeper into their networks is enabling service providers to not have their own peering and backbone congested.

"We are seeing customers spend both on applications that allow their workforces to work from home as well as on capacity that's needed on the network. As you shift from an in office type environment to a majority of your workforce working remotely, you start to look at needing to augment capacity, adding VPN concentrators and other things that are required for people to work from home securely."

Cisco was also able to tap into its own resources, such as Webex, when Robbins decided the company's entire workforce of about 73,000 employees would work from home. Robbins said Cisco uses its own platform to host company-wide video conferencing meetings with his employees.

"We were really early on work from home and we were making those decisions around the globe as we saw this virus spread," Robbins said. "We're blessed that we have technology, that everyone has this technology."

While the bulk of Cisco's employees are WFH, Robbins said some of them are in hospitals in China and other countries standing up new network services in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Robbins said it was too early to tell what the impact of WFH will be after the coronavirus dies down, but it has changed the company's supply chain tactics.

"We're prioritizing our supply-chain capacity," Robbins said. "Historically, we would prioritize that by our biggest customers who were the loudest. Now we put a whole process in place to prioritize our supply chain capacity for those companies who are in the middle of trying to solve this crisis.

"So we're not thinking much about what happens longer term. We're just trying to make sure we're doing our part to get through it right now. We'll continue to do that, and then we'll figure it out later."