Cisco unveils a grab bag of wireless LAN products

Cisco's mobile applications take Interop stage

Cisco unveiled a grab bag of wireless LAN announcements at Interop Tuesday, including much of what you'd expect in the form of new hardware. But there's a somewhat surprising twist: the equipment vendor's wide-ranging emphasis on software applications.

The announcements include a new mesh access point, the high-end 5500 WLAN controller, a low-end version of its Mobility Services Engine, and a more flexible licensing model for its gear. There's also an improvement to its access point-based M-Drive code to in effect lock 802.11a clients into the 5GHz band. Cisco also extensively redesigned the GUI for its Wireless Control System, the application for managing its WLANs.

There's also an updated version of Cisco's WebEx desktop and phone conferencing application client for the Apple iPhone. Cisco will add video support over Wi-Fi later this year. And three new software vendors -- ArcSight, NetScout and RSA -- are now supporting the Cisco API through the Mobility Services Engine to add new security and management features for WLAN administrators.

Another change makes it easier and faster for third-party device makers to use the Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) code to marry their products with a Cisco WLAN.

"Most of the news is just Wi-Fi related," says Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst for wireless and mobility with Burton Group. "But the most interesting piece is what they're doing with applications. The Mobility Services Engine was a classic, big company 'what the heck are they announcing' announcement. It was a skeleton that they're now fleshing out."

The MSE is collects a wide range of WLAN data from Cisco controllers and access points, and it hosts or connects with applications from Cisco and third-party vendors that can make use of the data. Cisco initially offered an application to calculate and map a radio's location, for example. ArcSight, NetScout, and RSA can now use MSE as a platform for respectively network and compliance event monitoring and analysis, network and application performance, and for security for users, data and applications.

"This is a new area for Cisco - integrating applications and making it easy for people to develop applications," says DeBeasi. "It's not typically what they do."

For a lot of users, the focus is still on the fundamental WLAN hardware. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has been beta testing the new 5500 series controller. It deployed a single 5500 at one school to manage 166 Cisco access points, instead of having to deploy two of an older model, with unused capacity, says Neal Shelton, network engineering supervisor for the district. By using one controller, Shelton also was able to simplify managing hash keys for the access points.

FCPS bought the Wireless Control System application early in 2009, and Shelton says the redesigned GUI is "much more intuitive," and gives Cisco high marks for management and administration reports that are simple to use and read.

Here's what's being announced:

  • Aironet 1424SB outdoor mesh access point: two radios in the 802.11a 5 GHz band are for dedicated, backhaul sending and receiving to maximize throughput; the third radio supports client access. Price: US$4,999.

  • 5500 series wireless controller: With an 8Gbps backplane, and optimized for 802.11n networks, the high-end appliance supports from 12 to 250 access points, and thousands of clients. The new flexible licensing scheme lets enterprise customers start small, and add additional licenses to match client growth. List price ranges from US$10,995 for a WLAN of as many as 12 access points to $93,995 as many as 250.

  • OfficeExtend: Optional software, loaded on Cisco Aironet 1130 and 1140 access points that are linked to a WAN connection. OfficeExtend connects securely with a central 5500 controller and downloads and enforces a range of enterprise security and management policies for mobile workers and teleworkers. License is US$75 per access point.

  • Mobility Services Engine 3310: A lower-end model to the companion 3350 model, the new MSE is aimed at midsize businesses. It's an appliance that runs software programs to collect, store and manage data from wireless clients and Cisco access points and controllers. The MSE can use this data itself for jobs like rogue radio detection, and share it with either higher-end Cisco network applications or with third-party applications, such as wireless asset tracking, and RFID data management. Price: US$6,995.

  • WebEx Meeting Center version 1.2 for the iPhone: A free download from Apple's App Store; the new version lets the user schedule meetings and invite attendees to join even while the meeting is in progress.

  • Cisco Compatible Extensions: CCX has been subdivided into four modular elements: the core foundation code, and three application "services" -- management, collaboration and context-aware. Device makes select the foundation along with only those services they want to incorporate on their silicon or device.

  • Enhanced M-Drive: M-Drive is a bundle of radio management features, most recently including beamforming to boost performance of 802.11g and 11a wireless clients. The new feature is BandSelect, which is an access point code that "tricks" a device that supports 802.11a into using 11a in the less crowded 5GHz band instead of 11g in 2.4GHz.

Cisco also recreated what it calls the Cisco Developer Network, a collection of online documentation, support and community features for software developers at third-party technology partners.

Finally, Cisco introduced several consulting services specializing in working with enterprise customers on migrating to 802.11n, on evaluating real-time wireless applications such as voice and video, and on new WLAN planning and design services.

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