Cisco Duals its Way into 802.11-Land

Cisco Systems today introduced it Aironet 1200 Series Dual Radio WLAN Access Point (AP) and 5 GHz 802.11a radios. The company also announced its Wireless Integrated Network Solutions (WINS) lab, where prospective customers can preview and test Cisco WLAN equipment. The announcements today were accompanied by a briefing from Cisco executives outlining the company’s plans and placement in the surging WLAN marketplace. In attendance were Charlie Giancarlo, Senior VP and GM of Technology Development, Larry Birenbaum, VP and GM Ethernet Access Group, and Bill Rossi, VP and GM of Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit.

The Cisco Aironet 1200 Series AP is based on a modular design which allows for both single and dual-radio configurations using both 802.11b, 802.11a, and future 802.11g modules. The unit ships with an 802.11b card installed and provides an additional slot for an 802.11a module – and in the future, an 802.11g module when those become available. The units are ‘field upgradeable’ as Cisco calls it, which means that the radios can be modified at the customer location.

The Aironet 1200 Series AP features a 200 MHz Power PC processor, and according to the Cisco execs, ample memory for present and future requirements. The AP is designed to support all WLAN standards, including 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g, used in any combination in its dual slot design. Other physical characteristics of the AP include a rugged metal case, which supports a variety of mounting options and operating environments, and multiple power supply options. The unit can be powered by traditional AC or Power over Ethernet (PoE). There are also several 2.4 GHz antenna options. In keeping with the company’s strategy of ‘future-proofing’ its products to provide maximum value to customers, Bill Rossi said that the AP is “faster than it needs to be and has more memory than it needs to have.” Future-proofing was an important theme in the portion of the presentation given by Rossi. The Aironet 1200 Series 802.11a radio offering has a high-performance antenna that’s integrated into the unit, said Rossi. “Turns out the FCC has defined a portion of the 802.11a standard such that the antenna must be integrated into the product. They cannot be separate. This product accomodates that with an embedded antenna. This one has a floppy antenna, which is by design. It isn’t broken. The reason is that you may want either omnidirectional or hemispherical coverage. This device will do both of those. It does it all automatically,” said Rossi. On the client side, Cisco stated that they will have 802.11b, 802.11a, and eventually combination cards available. The company did mention that they will be coming out with an 802.11a card that is entirely their own design, but that their 802.11b solution is based partly on third party technology from vendors like Intersil and RF Micro Devices.

Larry Birenbaum opened his portion of the event by stating that “We view wireless technology as another sea change…” and said that “we [Cisco] feel that wireless technologies will have the same kind of impact” that the advent of PCs and Ethernet had.

Birenbaum then went on to describe Cisco’s leadership role in the WLAN market. “We have a leadership position with the 18% share,” he said as he presented charts to show the data. By this he is referring to the Q401 from analysis firm Synergy. This is based on total worldwide market share. But in the Enterprise, Birenbaum pointed out, “Cisco has a leadership with 37%.” This refers to the Cisco market share at the same point but limited to the Enterprise sector. Following Cisco in worldwide market share, according to the stats presented by Synergy, were Agere with 11% and Symbol with 6%. In the Enterprise, following Cisco’s lead was followed by Agere with 18% and Symbol with 14%. Much of the remainder of both market segments was highly fragmented at the end of 2001, according to the Synergy data.

Birenbaum also described Cisco’s wireless strategy as being oriented and focused on the Enterprise, comparing it to the Sun and Microsoft strategies which he said tend to be using wireless horizontally.

In keeping with their Enterprise focus, Birenbaum spoke about security. “This is a major issue. This is a serious issue in wireless LANS, and Cisco has a robust solution. The gist of our offering is that it’s Enterprise-class – it’s secure, manageable, and offers investment protection. These characteristics distinguish us from the consumer oriented products in the space.” He then went on to describe the various security solutions and characteristics that could be implemented with the Cisco solutions based on customer requirements. “If I have public access – thats one set of requirements – as opposed to a military operation,” he said. Cisco has divided up its security solutions into those ranging from ‘open’ access – which really means allowing as many people as possible access – to solutions involving VPNs and encryption schemes including current dynamic keying to future AES-based solutions.

The Cisco Aironet 1200 series is designed around the company’s focus on the rapidly changing nature of wireless technology and the aforementioned concept of ‘future-proofing.’ “The key challenge for vendors producing 802.11a is partly the technology, but moreover it’s the migration path,” said Birenbaum. The company’s new AP supports ease of migration by offering the dual slots that can be used with any of the WLAN radios.

Birenbaum spent some time discussing the virtues of the various 802.11 standards and said that one of the particular strengths of 802.11a is that it operates in what the company calls “clear air” up in the 5 GHz part of the spectrum. The lack of interference and increase in usable channels from 802.11b/g’s three to 802.11a’s eight makes it desirable to some end-users. He emphasized that while 802.11a has its merits, 802.11b has “the virtue of low power, low cost… and the market that you saw before is based on that technology.” He said that Cisco has to deal with this very large and growing stake and customer base – thus the need for dual band technologies. “There are others that have higher-end applications that need 802.11a clients,” he said. “The trick is to offer a system that can offer both of these clients concurrently. Beyond that there is the future installation of 802.11g…”

Charlie Giancarlo, who opened the event spoke about the inevitable decentralization of the enterprise to the point where it becomes almost a ‘virtual organization.’ He said that 97% of Cisco’s 38000 plus employees already can connect to the Cisco network remotely. Giancarlo called wireless and specifically 802.11 technology a “viral technology” in the sense that individuals all over the world are using it, and coming to appreciate its benefits so much so that they are unwilling to give it up -and want to put it everywhere. He likened the evolution as akin to the spread of PCs and Ethernet, which really took off as passionate individuals spread the technologies.

The Cisco Aironet 1200 Series AP, which comes with a standard 802.11b radio and available slot for an 802.11a module, has list price of $999. The dual-band version, with both radios, has a list price of $1,499. The 802.11a client card lists for $229. The Cisco Aironet 1200 Series AP begins shipping this month. The dual-band version AP and 802.11a client radio card will be available in August, 2002.

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