Cisco intros appliance for unifying mobile app management

Vendor says Mobility Services Engine can support devices on wired, wireless networks

Cisco Systems Wednesday announced a networking appliance designed to support mobile applications being deployed by companies over both wired and wireless networks.

The new device, called the Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine (MSE), starts at US$19,995 and is scheduled to ship in June. It offers an open API that can be used to consolidate the management of mobile data and voice services running across a variety of network types, according to Ben Gibson, senior director of mobility solutions at Cisco.

Cisco said that business partners such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia and Oracle have integrated or plan to integrate applications with the MSE appliance. Other vendors that have signed on to support the device include AeroScout, Agito Networks and Airetrak, Cisco announced.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at The Farpoint Group, said that the MSE is an important offering for Cisco as the company moves beyond its base as a networking equipment vendor and seeks to provide users with applications and middleware running on its gear. "They are moving middleware into a piece of hardware and providing a uniform way to access that," Mathias said.

The MSE approach appears to be unique among networking vendors, Mathias and other analysts said. But to receive the promised benefits, customers still have to run their applications in Cisco-based installations. The appliance "will sell well to Cisco customers," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "But this is a closed system, which helps only if you are very committed to Cisco."

One of the biggest immediate potential benefits will be for customers seeking to enable their end users to make voice calls over Wi-Fi networks and then roam on to cellular networks without losing their calls, a capability that can improve the user experience while greatly lowering calling costs. Similar fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) features are already offered by some other vendors, such as Siemens AG and Motorola -- the latter in partnership with Avaya. But those companies use entirely different underlying architectures, and they "don't have the strong networking security control that Cisco has" nor the enormous user base, Dulaney noted.

Michele Pelino, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that FMC is considered a critical priority by more than half of the large businesses that responded to a recent Forrester survey.

FMC and location-based applications, which also can be supported by Cisco's new appliance, stand to benefit users in particular market segments, such as health care providers that might use the MSE device to help find medical equipment with attached RFID tags. For example, Gibson said that the MSE and related systems management tools from Cisco will be able to forward location information to a server so that medical personnel could find even a missing wheelchair in a cavernous hospital.

According to Gibson, the MSE is the cornerstone of a new mobile networking architecture called Cisco Motion that is designed to enable companies to unify their networks, manage client devices such as handhelds and phones, and facilitate collaboration and software development both internally and with outside business partners.

For example, the MSE will offer context-aware software for tracking items via Wi-Fi and other wireless networks, with each appliance being able to track up to 20,000 network endpoints, Gibson said.

Cisco said the new mobile roaming capability for handing off calls between Wi-Fi and cellular networks will be integrated with "numerous" offerings from telecommunications service providers, third-party vendors and mobile device makers. That includes Nokia, which said as part of Cisco's announcement that it plans to provide automatic handoff support to users of its Intellisync Call Connect software at Cisco itself as well as other customers.

In addition, the MSE will work with a new wireless intrusion-prevention system being offered by Cisco and with a Secure Client Manager tool that the vendor said can be used to centralize security and provision management procedures for various mobile devices.

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