Cisco and new ISR aggressively target branch office

Cisco this week upgraded its branch office portfolio, enhancing security, unified communications, WAN optimisation and performance.

Cisco this week again cemented its aggressive pursuit of the branch office with a set of announcements for enhancements the company said will further drive productivity, collaboration and operational simplicity.

For the past several months, Cisco Systems has devoted heaps of time and money to connecting the branch office, continuing a campaign that started in earnest with the introduction of the Integrated Services Router (ISR) three years ago. This week, branch office offerings come in the form of a new ISR model, a new switch series, new messaging tools, an intrusion prevention module and wireless 802.11n support.

According to Cisco senior marketing manager Dee Dee Pare, the theme of an "empowered branch" will be a strong focus for Cisco going forward.

"Branches were the afterthought," she said. "We're coming up with a blueprint to standardise on the architecture of the branch."

The ultimate goal, Pare said, is to build out the branch office with many of the same functions and capabilities as corporate headquarters. Pare said recent research found that the number of branch offices is growing at a rate of 10% per year, meaning branch offices are now taking on a bigger role and are seen as more strategic enterprise locations than they were just a few years ago.

Yankee Group Research senior vice president Zeus Kerravala said Cisco's branch office play fits right in with what companies are looking for to optimise branches, which were once distant islands.

"I think, historically, branch environments typically had lesser functionality than corporate headquarters, both from a feature and performance point of view," he said, adding that Cisco's vision of an enabled branch can bring consistency of services and performance across an entire organisation.

Nick Lippis, publisher of The Lippis Report and president of Lippis Enterprises agreed, adding that after the market crashed in 2000 and 2001, there was a renewed interest in the branch office, and IT and business leaders wanted to get the most out of their remote sites.

"The goal was to make sure the folks in those branch offices were empowered," he said, which is why Cisco has optimised the branch and integrated several boxes -- WAN acceleration, security, unified communications, VoIP -- into one with the ISR platform.

Cisco's new product announcements

This week, Cisco announced several upgrades geared to the branch, including:

  • Cisco 1861 ISR, an all-in-one unified communications tool to enable anytime, anywhere access to information, fuelling efficient communication and collaboration.
  • The Cisco Catalyst 2960 Series Switch with LAN Lite Cisco IOS software, designed to simplify the migration from non-intelligent hubs and managed switches to fully scalable managed switches with entry-level security and quality of service (QoS).
  • Cisco Unified Messaging Gateway, which delivers networking features and director services to ease voicemail networking and enhance management and maintenance across Cisco Unity Express, Cisco Unity and legacy voice messaging products.
  • Cisco Intrusion Prevention System Advanced Integration Module for threat prevention to help branch offices defend against attacks and disruptions, protect privacy and support policy and regulatory compliance controls. The intrusion prevention system piggybacks on the recent Network Admission Control (NAC) branch module, Pare said.
  • Cisco IOS Performance Routing and high-end Cisco Wide Area Application Services (WAAS), which accelerate applications to minimise WAN bandwidth cost and usage by letting the network intelligently meet performance requirements of feature-rich applications.
  • Wireless LAN Controller support for 802.11n to increase throughput and ease the migration path to 802.11n from older wireless standards.

"With the emergence of new business applications and a new communications paradigm, we now have access to a wealth of new collaboration and productivity tools that simply were not available when many branch office network architectures were first designed," Cisco senior director of network systems Marie Hattar said in a statement. "IP communications started the trend towards rich media services like videoconferencing and advanced voice applications. As branch offices become more sophisticated, so must the enterprise WAN architecture."

The set of new branch office products, Pare said, lets customers standardise their branch architecture on a consistent, interoperable set of security, unified communications, application acceleration and wireless services while also optimising branch performance and costs. She added that the new lineup helps branch offices adopt new services while reducing the cost of operations.

The 1861 ISR platform builds on Cisco's ISR portfolio, which has sold 3 million units in just three years. It is designed, Pare said, for small branches looking to utilise unified communications and enable secure routing in offices of up to eight people. The 1861 ISR has options for Cisco Unified CallManager Express 4.2 and Cisco Unity Express 3.3 for Survivable Remote Site Telephony 4.2.

The Catalyst 2960 Series with LAN Lite Cisco IOS combines features like security and QoS for small wiring closet and branch office networks. The LAN Lite switches, Pare said, simplify configuration, monitoring and troubleshooting with tools such as time domain reflectometry, Cisco Network Assistant and CiscoWorks LAN Management.

Cisco also enhanced unified communications to the branch with the Cisco Unified Messaging Gateway for voicemail routing and subscriber and directory information for up to 10,000 voicemail systems. Unity Express 3.0 includes a collection of enhancements, like increased security, messaging features and the introduction of Integrated Voice Response. And Cisco Unified Call Manager Express 4.2 enhances branch services with new voice security features, extension mobility within the branch and call centre capabilities through interoperability with Cisco Unified Contact Center Express 5.0.

On the security side, Cisco is rolling out the Cisco Intrusion Prevention System Advanced Integration Module (IPS AIM) for the modular ISR to identify, classify and stop malicious traffic and protect branches from threats and reduce WAN link overload from infected branch hosts. Pare said the IPS AIM, combined with the recently announced NAC module for the ISR, helps future-proof and secure branch offices.

On the WAN optimisation side, branches face implementation challenges when trying to split inbound and outbound traffic on multiple WAN links, Pare said. Cisco Performance Routing software optimises network routes by monitoring Internet traffic, performance and other conditions to ensure the best traffic path is taken. That coupled with the new Cisco WAAS Network Module for the 3800 Series ISR can help achieve LAN-like performance to remote and branch offices, Pare said.

Lastly, Cisco announced an 802.11n software upgrade for the Cisco Wireless LAN Controller Module for the 2800 and 2800 Series ISR, which supports Cisco Aironet 1250 Series access points. It has the increased throughput, range, reliability and predictability of draft 2.0 of the 802.11n standard. This release ties into an802.11n announcement Cisco made earlier this month.

Renewed focus on the branch includes manageability

For Cisco, the branch office has become a key selling point, especially since the ISR's introduction.

"The branch router business has been Cisco's bread and butter for years," Kerravala said, estimating that 90% of branches have some Cisco gear deployed. "So it's a nice platform to build on."

Market-wise, Cisco is clobbering its competitors, Kerravala noted, and its recent announcements could further extend that lead over other router vendors like Juniper with its J-Series, Nortel's Tasman, AdTran's NetVanta, Alcatel and 3Com. There was a time, he said, when Nortel had the "biggest opportunity" in the branch, but wasted it by ignoring the market and falling under the assumption that the router was fading away.

Kerravala said branches will turn to Cisco for ease of management and the ability to offer services throughout an organisation, from headquarters to the branch.

"It's consolidation of services into one platform," he said. "Having them from one vendor, you have better consistency; also by putting it into the router, you get it optimised with the network."

In the past, branch deployments relied heavily on multiple vendors, he said, creating confusion. "Every service had its own vendor, sometimes several vendors." he said.

Lippis said companies are now more interested in platforms over products in their branch offices while also reducing operational and facilities costs, ultimately lowering the total cost of ownership.

"A lot of business and IT leaders see it as a platform investment where they get new features and functions," Lippis said. "And Cisco's gotten this right; they own this market."

David Kiser, IT director for Nanometrics Inc, a semiconductor company, agreed that a branch deployment hinging on multiple vendors can be troublesome. Kiser said he uses the ISR in five locations and has relied on it for VoIP connectivity and WAN optimisation.

"Usually, a product that young [the ISR] tends to be problematic, but this hasn't been," he said. My focus is: How do I reduce my overhead in IT and still offer high service levels to all of my sites? They need the same network connectivity as any other corporate site."

Kiser said Nanometrics is in the process of consolidating its data centres into one with an overseas disaster recovery location, so he needs strong WAN optimisation techniques in the ISR. And moving forward, he's looking to add in IPS and unified messaging at the branch, which are high on the list of his goals for the coming year and key components of Cisco's new branch offerings.

"My biggest challenge is getting [branches] the information they need to do their jobs and to fuel collaboration," Kiser said.

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