Lee H. Badman

Network Computing Blogger


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Cisco Launches Combo Switch/WLAN Controller

Cisco's Unified Access strategy aims to create a single management framework for wired, wireless and VPN networks. To execute on that strategy, Cisco announced a handful of products today, including a new (and very different) switch, a new controller, and updates to its ISE software and the Prime Infrastructure management system.

First up is the Catalyst 3850 Unified Access Switch, which can terminate both wired and wireless traffic (yes, it is a wireless controller if you want it to be), and perform an impressive slew of new tricks like flexible NetFlow and Cisco's Media Trace. The switch is powered by a new ASIC called the Unified Access Data Plane (UADP) ASIC. Cisco said the switch supports up to 480 Gbs with stacking. A single 3850 can support up to 50 access points; four of the devices can be aggregated to support up to 250 APs. The controller supports 802.11n, and Cisco said it is 802.11ac-ready.

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Also using the UADP ASIC is the new 5760 Wireless LAN Controller. Where the 3850 is meant to service both Ethernet and wireless, the 5760 is a dedicated WLAN controller. According to Cisco's specs, the controller offers 60 Gbps of capacity and can support up to 1,000 APs. It starts at $20,000. The 5760 also happens to be IOS-based; this is good news to those of us that never warmed up to the AireOS operating system, which has lingered in Cisco controllers since the acquisition of Airespace in 2005.

The new ASIC is worthy of mention, but I've also spoken (under NDA) with other vendors about forthcoming development in ASICs, chips and high-performance silicon in general, so I can say that Cisco isn't alone in the capabilities of the UADP.

On the management side comes version 1.2 of Integrated Services Engine (ISE). As the functional heart of Cisco's Unified Access framework, the latest version expands MDM integration with the likes of Good, Airwatch, Mobile Iron and Zenprise. For those not familiar, ISE provides range of functions from RADIUS to wireless guest management to serving as the policy engine that all other parts of the system help enforce--including the MDM systems that ISE integrates with.

Cisco also announced Prime Infrastructure 2.0, which is the network management side of the Unified Access initiative. Prime Infrastructure 2.0 configures, monitors and manages the wired and wireless infrastructure from a single console. The 2.0 version is a requirement for the new Catalyst 3850 switch and 5760 Controller.

The Customer View

I give Cisco and other vendors credit for promoting the idea that wireless is no longer a support player in the network, and for providing products that help tame the wired/wireless madness. Like other Cisco customers, I have to service authorized users who may be on company machines or on their own devices, and I have visitors that fall into a number of different privilege categories on both the LAN and the WLAN. I have ever more traffic coursing through my centralized wireless controllers on its way to the network core, and I have an ongoing need to look deep into my traffic.

I like the notion of an integrated management system. Right now, my team manages our switches with one product and our WLAN with another, as well as a number of boxes from Cisco and other vendors that contribute to policy enforcement and management. The promise to meld it together is appealing.

That said, to successfully collapse these boxes down into one single system demands solid, bug-free code, and I haven't always been pleased with Cisco management products in this regard. Monitoring and managing thousands of switches and access points along with tens or hundreds of thousands of Ethernet and WLAN clients is ambitious. I hope Cisco is really investing resources into quality assurance as it goes down the Prime road because (and I speak from experience) it sucks when your management system becomes a bigger problem that the network itself. I hope these new products are fully baked.


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