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Switches will support "virtual stacking," Cohen says, in which capacity is pooled and automatically assigned, remapped and balanced across access points when they are added to or subtracted from the network.

This is not unlike the challenges facing enterprises in branch-office networking. More than 90 per cent of employees work in a branch or remote office. Yet the branch is made up of a disparate set of technologies, capabilities and functionalities that increase the cost of doing business and the inconsistency of the customer experience, says Steve Hardy, Avaya director of converged communications product marketing.

"The branch is a much more strategic part of the business plan, Hardy says, adding that it's morphed from a cost center to a profit center. "The branch is the place where business interacts with its customers. The customer experience will be the key driver of the technology refresh."

Some of the considerations enterprises must deal with are whether business applications need to be centralized or distributed to branch locations, he says. Integrated security is "critical," he claims, as is an "open, standard converged infrastructure" to maximize total cost of ownership.

But therein lie some opposing goals, Hardy says: maximizing application reach while minimizing TCO. That's why enterprises will increasingly adopt hybrid models where some applications are hosted at the headquarters site, others in the branch and others with the company's telecom carriers.

Cisco concurs with the hybrid model of application hosting in the next-generation branch office. Cisco says the numbers of branches are growing 10% per year, consuming 70% of a company's IT resources.

Branch employees are also computing different than they did three to five years ago, says Michael Wood, director of product management in Cisco's Access Routing technology group. They are mobile, executing Web 2.0 applications and performing mashups, he says.

"Their expectations and experiences are much different," he says. "They're more interactive."

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