Cisco takes aim at mobility with appliance line

Attempting to tackle a whole problem that has been attacked in parts, Cisco plans to try consolidating enterprise mobility technologies on Wednesday, introducing a series of appliances to help enterprises take better advantage of mobile devices and location information.

The Cisco 3300 Series Mobile Services Engine (MSE) appliances will work with Cisco wireless networks and Cisco-compatible mobile devices to handle a wide range of mobility tasks. The first model, the 3350 Series, will be able to certify new devices appearing on the network and distribute applications and updates to those devices according to policies. It will also collect a variety of information related to mobile devices and objects, including location, and feed that information to applications that use it. And when someone takes a device outside, the MSE will manage how it gets handed off from enterprise to carrier wireless networks.

While trying to tackle the limitations that traditional enterprise networks have in dealing with mobile devices, Cisco is also looking ahead toward mobility and location becoming more important components of enterprise applications. Its vision for this, Cisco Motion, is to begin with the MSE line.

Enterprises are pushing much of their networking investment into mobility — building wireless LANs inside their buildings, installing cellular data cards for connectivity outside, and adopting unified communications to make employees reachable wherever they are, according to analyst Maribel Lopez of Lopez Research. But it’s still a young market that has yet to be fully defined, she added.

“No one owns the vision in the mobility space yet,” Lopez said. Cisco has a shot at defining that, just as it has in the wired networking world, now that it has built up an arsenal of technologies including unified communications, Wi-Fi and WiMax technology, she said. Nokia and Motorola may try to do the same, according to Lopez.

The platform will include an open API (application programming interface) so it can support third-party services and applications. Cisco said several application and solution partners, including Nokia and Oracle, will make their offerings work with the MSE or already have.

Cisco will work with phone makers for compatibility with the major smartphone operating systems, said Jonathan Hindle, director of mobile service provider marketing at Cisco. However, the company won’t have to dig down into the myriad operating systems of lower-end phones because most of them don’t have the kinds of data capabilities that could threaten an enterprise network’s security, he said.

Along with the 3350 Series, Cisco was set to announce four initial software offerings for it:

– Cisco Context-Aware Software, to collect information about users, applications and devices, and their availability and location for use by applications;

– Cisco Secure Client Manager, to provision mobile devices over the Cisco Secure Services Client 802.1x;

– Cisco Adaptive Wireless IPS (Intrusion Prevention System), to scan mobile devices and enforce security policies; and

– Cisco Mobile Intelligent Roaming, to manage the handoff of devices between networks, working with offerings from service providers, device makers and third-party vendors.

Although the many functions of the MSE could have been built into Cisco’s underlying IOS (Internetwork Operating System), the company wanted to combine the functions in a box on the network for easier administration, Hindle said.

The MSE doesn’t replace Cisco’s existing mechanisms for security or presence information, according to Rick McConnell, vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Unified Communications Business Unit. For example, it will tap into the Network Access Control system for policies to authenticate devices entering the network, and Unified Communications Manager will take advantage of the MSE’s location information like any other application, he said.

The 3350 MSE will start shipping in June, with prices starting at US$19,995. The four initial software modules will become available over time, concluding with the Cisco Secure Client Manager Software in the first half of 2009.

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