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Air Time: Cisco and Intel: Best Friends in the Enterprise

Intel's Centrino platform has been a big hit with the enterprise not because its Wi-Fi
radio is the best, but more because there are clear advantages to increased
standardization of wireless network clients. When it comes to wireless, Intel gets
high grades for commitment, in marketing most of all, but also in product
development and venture funding. The company's recently announced Digital
Communities initiative, designed to enhance the operational effectiveness of local
governments, is mostly about community wireless networks, which are becoming
increasingly popular.

Cisco is one of Intel's partners in the Digital Communities initiative. While Intel
dominates wireless clients, Cisco is king of enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructure, with 53
percent market share according to a recent report by Aaron Vance of Synergy
Research Group. The company's WLAN infrastructure strategy, which has two
product lines based on differing architectures, is a little confusing these days.
Cisco spins it as something good for customers, providing them with two
alternatives. But it's more a concession to the company's desire to satisfy both a
loyal Aironet customer base, those who aren't ready to rip-and-replace, while also
catering to technology evaluators in many greenfield environments, where newer,
more manageable WLAN system designs are often preferred.

Over time, Cisco will find a way to better rationalize its WLAN infrastructure
strategy. In the mean time, there's plenty of work to do to try and overcome the
fundamental problems its enterprise customers face when rolling out scalable and
secure wireless LANs. Central to the problem is that irascible standards-based
802.11 client, which lacks many important capabilities in areas like roaming,
security, load-balancing and quality of service. Painfully slow progress in the many
802.11 task groups working on various dimensions of the problem led the Wi-Fi
Alliance to roll out its WPA security initiative in advance of standards. It also led
Cisco to establish its CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) program, which pushes a
set of proprietary client extensions that overcome limitations in standards-based
systems.

When Cisco introduced CCX a little over two years ago, all the wireless silicon
providers quickly signed on, announcing their commitment to implementing CCX on
their clients. It was easy to see this as a Cisco power play right out of the
Microsoft playbook, an end-run around standards that delivered benefits to client
devices from virtually every manufacturer--but benefits that were only realizable if
you had Cisco Wi-Fi infrastructure.