Everyone knows that Cisco Systems is very serious about both wired and wireless networking. After all, you can't dominate up to 70% of the enterprise market and maintain such a domineering and controlling position in this industry without putting some serious money and strategic thought behind your products and technology. It is also no secret that Cisco has been a bit, shall we say "lethargic" in terms of expanding and evolving its product line beyond its vast amount of architecture and infrastructure products to take advantage of new trends in wireless RF management, tracking, administration and control.
The company has promised and hinted that new upgrades and solutions are coming, which has created somewhat of a problem as the people who make purchase decisions within the enterprise wait for new networking commandments to come down from the mount.
Last week, however, Cisco finally made some real headway by taking the wraps off a progressive strategy that seems to provide some real answers for end users who have waited a very long time for products and services that finally rationalize their reasons for waiting for such a very long time. In a far-reaching announcement, the company threw around all the right buzz words and terms that are popular among the IT cognoscenti. These include such phrases as "security", "wireless space management", "network deployment", "mobility" and "return on investment" (ROI).
The announcement, delivered by top Cisco networking executives, centers on the company's Catalyst 6500 Series Wireless LAN Services Module (WLSM), and a newer versions of its CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solutions Engine and workhorse AiroNet 1300 access points. Together, the technology tag team offers more extensive management and control capabilities for Cisco wired and wireless networks, as well as extended control capabilities for wireless networks that exist outdoors.
To quote Larry Birenbaum, senior VP and GM for Cisco's Ethernet Access Group, the integration capabilities of these new products will allow for reduced total cost of ownership, a common management and robust security scheme, simplified deployment and operation, and centralized control and configuration of a few to hundreds to thousands of networking devices. And, oh yes, the additions will also offer users the ability to detect and automatically suppress rogue access points, and throws in a bit of self-healing for improved wireless up-time.
Attendees at this week's Networld & Interop conference and exhibition in Las Vegas will no doubt hear a lot about Cisco's new product suite and strategy over the din of slot machines and clatter of roulette wheels. Cisco executives and sales people will also no doubt be talking a bit about how partner companies will plug in some of the necessary components and pieces to make all this happen for enterprise applications. In fact, the word "partner" was used once or twice in the press material and transcripts detailing Cisco's new technology on its Web site -- although it is interesting that the company inserts the disclaimer at the end of most news announcements that use of the word "partner" does not necessarily imply a partnership. The fact of the matter is that most of what Cisco is offering in this latest upgrade of its strategy and technology has been available for some time from partner (and non-partner) companies. Most of the wireless switch manufacturers struggling to differentiate their products from each other with different features and additions have locked onto such in-demand feature targets as on-the-fly security, management and control, real-time rogue access detection and scalability. Many take the same basic approach as Cisco, basing a lot of this technology on the signals emitted by each wireless access point in a network, while others delve a little deeper by adding proprietary algorithms and formulae that measure proximity and signal strength within that constantly morphing wireless bubble.
Most IT managers, who are saddled with the responsibility (and burden) of effective wireless deployments and security, know very well that there are good solutions available from a number of much smaller companies that have pioneered this area and developed highly useful alternatives. We know, because over the past few months we have talked to a number of these executives and they admit they have a solid short list of alternatives and solutions. The problem, however, is that the bean counters on the business side still believe it is a safer bet to buy from a more high-profile company like Cisco, than a smaller brand like XYX Networking. Fortunately, one of the lessons we have learned as we slowly poke our heads out of this recovering economy -- like so many skittish groundhogs -- is that brand name dos not automatically translate into a safe buy or effective and long-term solution. The people on the IT side are convinced of this fact, although it will take a bit of time to get the business side on board -- especially as we spy the light at the end of the economic tunnel and everyone talks of a new chicken in the pot and Google in the garage as the industry catches a little IPO fever.
Industry watchers, like us, have noted that Cisco has added a number of very useful features to its Catalyst 6500 line and refreshed wireless strategy. One of these features is the ability to automatically adjust the power levels of each individual wireless access point in a network to squeeze out the best performance levels and help eliminate weak spots and dropped signals. This is huge, since most IT and network administrators usually think about optimal deployment and AP positioning after plugging in and activating their wireless systems -- an act that is akin to building a barn after the horses have taken flight. The Cisco solution now pretty much eliminates the need to manually configure each and every AP, although it is still somewhat of a science to get the best possible structure and design -- which is why network designers command the really big bucks in this industry!
But, this ability, as well as much more sophisticated location-based techniques and tools, have been on the market for quite some time and available from smaller companies for much less money. Note that these are the same companies that have been petitioning Cisco for quite some time about partnering on deals and technology and occasionally co-selling solutions to enterprise clients. While Cisco is still a very strong force in the industry, and will continue to command a lion's share of the attention and business dollars for the immediate future, it is important to remember that the company is still behind in terms of really cutting edge wireless technology -- especially those techniques that are important to such evolving areas as voice over IP (VoIP) and even machine-to-machine (M2M) applications.
Many smaller companies have already wised up to the fact that partnering with Cisco is really more of an exercise in spirit than a concrete agreement, and have made the decision to sell compatibility and flexibility on top of existing Cisco architectures. While an official blessing from Cisco would be nice, it is becoming less of an issue among buyers as they look for dependable and affordable solutions over brand name and implied safe buys. We call it is "Perrier Syndrome", with reference to the bottled water industry that was once populated and dominated by one or two leading brands and now has a myriad of players with products that are equal to or better than the previous Top Guns.
In essence, it comes down to this: When somebody is thirsty for solutions, it doesn't necessarily matter what label is on the brand. It does matter that the product is dependable, does the job, is perhaps a bit cheaper, and quenches a thirst that has been there for way too long.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.