Cisco’s approach to wireless standards has been to create its own platforms, and only fully support open standards once these platforms have gained such market share that openness is no real threat.
This was seen in WLans, where Cisco has only recently backed interoperability between its products and third party access points – and is pushing a technology it acquired with Airespace as a standard for open switches. It made its EAP-Fast authentication protocol – a proprietary implementation that is an alternative to industry standard EAPs – into a de facto standard by allowing third parties to license it for free, and its Cisco Compatible Extensions program, which certifies compatibility of wireless hardware devices with Cisco’s key WLan range, Aironet, is also seen mainly as a way to create Cisco-controlled standards.
Its market share means that third parties find it hard not to support its technologies, which can achieve more rapid uptake than IEEE or IETF official platforms.
Unified Communication System
But last week saw a major departure from this habit, with Cisco unveiling the Unified Communication System, a comprehensive converged IP framework based around industry standard SIP. This is a major breakthrough in terms of bringing better integration and coherence to the company’s wired and wireline portfolio, and also shows how SIP (Session Initiation Protocol, the basis of most future IP applications) has become an unstoppable force even for Cisco, the king of IP (of course, its position in the IP market means it will also be able to exploit one of its greatest hidden assets, its intellectual property, as IP networks take hold across the mobile and converged markets).
SIP has been built natively into Cisco’s network operating system IOS, allowing it to support current Cisco IP products and openSIP versions simultaneously. This opens up the Cisco VoIP environment, with products such as CallManager, to SIP for integration with third party appliances, and server-based applications such as Microsoft Live Commuications Server.
Growth in SIP support
Until now, Cisco’s support for SIP has been lukewarm. As with other standards, it cited functionality compromises that it said went hand-in-hand with open platforms, and the slow progress of standards bodies compared to the pace of change required by enterprise customers. Of course, there was also an issue of protecting its own base, especially in key applications where it is dominant, such as corporate VoIP, and of giving itself leverage over its market share in those areas to build up similar strength in emerging sectors such as wireless convergence and mobile IP systems.
Not that Cisco was the only one - SIP has been hyped for years, but full commitment by top vendors has been lacking, with 3Com, Avaya and Nortel among those hesitating to create pure SIP versions of their gear, citing feature limitations. Even disruptive VoIP force Skype developed its own protocol, claiming SIP has too many weaknesses.
Now all the main IP telephony companies – Cisco, Siemens, Avaya, Nortel and 3Com - have promised SIP PBXs' based on Linux. This change of heart has been driven by enterprise demand for low cost solutions and by the increasing drive from the telcos and cellcos for SIP, as they look to converged wired and wireless, and voice and data/multimedia services to improve their own business models.
In the multinetwork, multimedia world, no technology – despite the probably short term influence of approaches like Unlicensed Mobile Access – has emerged to challenge SIP, and carriers have less dependence on Cisco than their enterprise cousins. Their support has sparked a high level of applications development around SIP, which has, for all its limitations, become impossible to ignore.
Cisco’s Unified Communication System (UCS) will focus initially on the voice application but has the potential and scalability to support a wide range of integrated IP functions in an enterprise environment, over wired and wireless networks. As such, it could also be adapted for the carrier market, especially for operatorsthat are not yet moving to the full IP Multimedia Subsystem as their convergence umbrella. The main initial components of UCS are CallManager 5.0, Unified Presence Server and Unified Personal Communicator, which will play to the rising trend for integrated messaging, combining voicemail, videomail, chat, email and messaging into a single interface and supporting presence and location awareness. Importantly to the enterprise market, Cisco’s own products in this area will also interoperate with Microsoft’s Office Communicator client, and its Live Communication
Server presence and multimedia platform
Cisco also plans to introduce integration with two other key partner platforms: Nokia's dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular handsets, which the phonemaker aims to turn into the "only handset an enterprise needs" for all its networks and applications; and the RIM BlackBerry 7270. Both devices will be able to run Cisco-based VoIP in Wi-Fi and cellular modes.
Cisco has leapt ahead of its IP telephony rivals in its support for both wireless and wired access. Soon, the UCS umbrella brand will cover almost 60 new or revamped Cisco products, with special attention paid to increasing intelligence around call processing, presence and location, plus enriching the offering through third party applications and devices.
With regards to Microsoft, which sees Live Communications Server as a key strategy for getting into the wireless as well as the wired enterprise, Cisco has given with one hand and taken away with the other. Its endorsement of LCS and other Microsoft products further increases the momentum behind them, and reinforces the old situation where Cisco products worked best with Windows-based, Cisco-only environments, thus generating further pressure for large companies to stick with this well tested combination.
But Cisco has also significantly stepped up its support for Linux in UCS, loosening its bonds with Windows somewhat. This is a Cisco that appears to be more open to standards it does not directly control, and to new partnerships, to ensure it stays king of the enterprise IP game as that expands its role into multimedia and mobility. It is also a Cisco that is continuing to play its trump card, its claim that no other vendor can match its breadth of products and provide a single-source converged solution.
The weakness in that story has been that the huge range of elements has not always worked smoothly together. Cisco will not undermine its market share significantly by supporting SIP, but it would have done with an IP platform that was fragmented and hard to integrate. SIP support gives it a better tale to tell carriers and enterprise service providers, and also a far quicker route to full portfolio integration than a proprietary reworking would have done.
Copyright © 2006, Wireless Watch
Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.