Cisco's Meraki spreads its cloud to voice

The cloud-managed infrastructure business now sells a desk phone

If you manage your whole LAN in the cloud, why not add in the desk phones, too?

That's what Cisco's Meraki division has done. Its first phone, the MC74, can be managed on the same dashboard Meraki provides for its switches, Wi-Fi access points, security devices, and other infrastructure.

Cisco bought Meraki in 2012 when it was a startup focused on cloud-managed Wi-Fi. The wireless gear remains, but Cisco took the cloud management concept and ran with it. Now Meraki’s approach is the model for Cisco’s whole portfolio.

Meraki’s goal is to simplify IT, said Pablo Estrada, director of marketing for Cisco’s cloud networking group. The idea appeals to smaller companies with small or non-existent IT staffs, but also to some large enterprises that need to set up and run networks at remote offices, he said. Since Cisco bought Meraki, the customer base has grown from 15,000 to 120,000.

The MC74 extends Meraki’s platform to phones, giving customers the chance to combine voice calling with their data networks and remove a separate system that can be complicated to manage. The MC74 is available now in the U.S. and will gradually roll out to other countries.

While Meraki’s cloud has a “single pane of glass” in its software to manage different kinds of infrastructure, its phone literally has a single pane of glass: an elegant, smartphone-like touchscreen. Other than volume and mute buttons and the corded handset, all the controls pop up on that screen.

Cisco is working on added features for Meraki phones that would tie them into the company’s broader communications portfolio later this year. For example, if two employees were in a text chat on Cisco’s Spark messaging app and decided to switch to voice, a user with a Meraki phone might be able to make that shift with one click, Estrada said.

The MC74 has a list price of US$599. Service to tie it into the public switched telephone network is list-priced at $8.95 per month. A Meraki cloud license for one phone costs $150.

Meraki is also upping its game in Wi-Fi. Two new access points, the MR52 and MR53, are equipped for so-called Wave 2 of the IEEE 802.11ac standard. That standard boosts Wi-Fi’s theoretical top speed to 2.3Gbps (bits per second) from 1.3Gbps in the first wave of 11ac. But the main point of the Wave 2 APs is to be able to serve more devices in the same area, Estrada said.

Along with the new access points, Meraki is introducing wired switches with ports equipped for 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps. Those are to handle the higher throughput from Wave 2 access points without upgrading to 10-Gigabit Ethernet, which requires better cabling. There’s no formal Ethernet standard for these speeds, but the Meraki switches use NBase-T, a specification that should make them upgradable to the standard via software, Estrada said.

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