Cisco has launched four wireless LAN applications, and an open appliance that will let third party software run tasks such as location tracking and voice on Cisco wireless LANs. Early comments suggest the move could change the wireless LAN market, shifting it away from technology and towards applications.

The 3300 Series Mobility Service Engine is a high level platform that supports applications that use Cisco wireless LANs. Alongside Cisco's mobility applications, it has an open application programming interface (API) so third parties can write software that use the Cisco wireless LANs.

It's a surprise announcement, and a change of direction. Since the arrival of the 802.11n standard, the wireless LAN market has seen fierce competition over the basic functions and architecture of wireless access points and their controllers. Cisco's hardware was early for enterprise 802.11n kit, and the competition claim their newer kit is superior.

This announcement leaves the hardware completely unchanged - so is the focus on applications just sleight of hand to distract us from the WLAN hardware? Not a bit of it, according to the first comments we got: "This is a very significant announcement," said Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group. "Applications are, after all, why we buy networks in the first place. Moving common functionality into a dedicated server on the network makes a lot of sense. This is a logical extension of what began as mobile middleware, well over ten years ago."

The MSE - part of Cisco's Motion strategy - will let Cisco and its partners shift away from technology arguments and sell wireless-based applications to new users. It already has four applications from Cisco, and support from major third parties, incuding IBM, HP, Nokia and Oracle, as well as application vendors such as Aeroscout in location and Agito in fixed-mobile convergence.

"The platform is open and extensible," said Mathias. "It will attract a lot of developers as well as enterprises looking for a convenient spot to host their own applications."

"There is a lot of argument in the industry, about how round your wheel is, not what you do with the actual vehicle," explained Cisco director of mobility solutions Ben Gibson, referring to debates about wireless LAN architecture, which have been re-ignited by the move to 802.11n.

"We have separated network services and control from the applications," he went on. "Application developers need a platform that is open and centralised, so they don't have to develop to closed platforms." The announcement is Cisco's biggest in wireless LANs, since the acquisition of Calhoun's company, Airespace in 2004, he said.

One appliance - less configuration

There have been specialist appliances for some of these jobs, for instance, Cisco's Wireless Location Appliance 2700, launched in 2005, and Trapeze's LA-200, launched in 2007. Specialist vendors such as Divitas offer appliances for fixed-mobile convergence.

The MSE is intended as a single place for all these applications. "The issue is - do you want to have a separate appliance for each of these services, or an integrated appliance," said Gibson. "If it's not integrated, it will require a lot more configuration, and require third parties to have a footprint on the end point.

The MSE doesn't handle network packets - those are managed by the wireless LAN controller. It also does not run the mobility applications, but provides a SOAP (web services) interface for them to use. Separating the network and the applications will allow new applications, and should also allow the network itself to evolve, says Calhoun: "it will be possible to add in different kinds of communications, such as ultra-wideband, ZigBee or WiMax, at the controller level without disrupting the applications," he said.

Fundamentally, it's supposed to make things easier for users: "This is not business as usual," said Pat Calhoun, Cisco's chief technology officer for wireless. "It's not building silo on silo, it translates into a far easier job for our customers."

Four Cisco apps

So far, four Cisco software products run on the MSE: a platform to support location tracking, called "context-aware software," a wireless intrusion prevention system (WIPS), a secure client management system; and "mobile intelligent roaming," which supports fixed-mobile convergence.

  • "Many of our customers have demanded that they want to move to something that is Wi-Fi based for location, with high level accuracy and the ability to scale," said Calhoun of the context-aware element. "We will drive accuracy rates - depending on density - down to 3m or less, and it will work in ruggedised environments with high ceilings [that tend to reduce Wi-Fi location accuracy]" .
  • The Cisco WIPS will be validated to meet the retail industry's PCI requirements, said Calhoun. The new WIPS would end the debate about whether there is a choice between full-strength security products, and wireless ones which till now have sacrificed some feature depth, he said: "It's very rich and stands toe to toe with other IPS products."
  • The secure client manager is intended to ease the job of IT managers who have to connect more and more wireless devices to their networks. "It's been predicted that there will soon be two billion wireless LAN endpoints, and we hear from customers that 80 percent of IT staff time is spent purely on troubleshooting client connectivity and provisioning those devices," he said. "There needs to be an answer to centrally tracking this." The application on MSE, uses technology in Wi-Fi clients, including Cisco's CCX extensions and 802.1x to automate provisioning and management.
  • The mobile intelligent roaming software facilitates handoff between private Wi-Fi networks and the cellular networks. "We've been getting significant traction for the Nokia E-series phones and our business mobility solution," said Calhoun. "This turns that into a seamless roaming solution." By providing an integration level between different networks, the software should make it easier and quicker for users to adopt converged solutions said Calhoun.

Other partners include Agito Networks, which launched a product in October for fixed/mobile convergence. Although Agito uses logic in the client to handle the switch between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, it will be improved by MSE: "This brings additional visibility into the Wi-Fi network," said Rob Markovich, chief executive officer of Agito. "Who better to tell us what is going on in the enterprise network? The API and our client software allows the MSE to feed that information to the client, so it can have additional information when to trigger a handover."

Another partner, AeroScout, is a big player in location: "Our products are built as vendor-neutral, and we continue to work with any enterprise WLAN on the market," said Gabi Daniely, vice president of marketing at AeroScour. "What the Cisco MSE uniquely delivers is a single solution that goes well beyond location, including other wireless application areas such as roaming, intrusion protection, etc. By including the AeroScout Engine embedded within this innovative product, we are gaining access to a very large set of customers to whom Cisco is offering a uniquely integrated solution."

Putting applications first?

Before the announcement, rivals guessed Cisco would be updating its access points, perhaps even moving them from Marvell silicon which only supports 2x3 MIMO, to the Atheros silicon used by the rest of the industry, which supports 3x3 MIMO.

But the announcement skirted that issue. Calhoun says that is "arguing over the shape of the wheel," rather than discussing where to drive it.

This "big picture" doesn't hurt Cisco. The company's products generally come at a price premium, with underlying technology that lags behind the leading edge products in a given sector. Wireless is no exception, but the company still has around 60 percent market share.

This has been eroded a little of late by Aruba and Meru, but the MSE may be what is needed to boost it back up again, but pushing wireless LANs out to users who would not have adopted them before.

"I think this product is very significant - and brilliant marketing to boot," concludes Mathias. "I expect many people won't get this - it's a classic paradigm shift, and it will take a while for even many analysts to see why this is such a good idea. But this is a very impressive direction that continues to build on Cisco's momentum in applications, driving demand for more network capacity through more robust and capable applications."