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...

Dave Molta

August 24, 2005

3 Min Read
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Intel's Centrino platform has been a big hit with the enterprise not because its Wi-Firadio is the best, but more because there are clear advantages to increasedstandardization of wireless network clients. When it comes to wireless, Intel getshigh grades for commitment, in marketing most of all, but also in productdevelopment and venture funding. The company's recently announced DigitalCommunities initiative, designed to enhance the operational effectiveness of localgovernments, is mostly about community wireless networks, which are becomingincreasingly popular.

Cisco is one of Intel's partners in the Digital Communities initiative. While Inteldominates wireless clients, Cisco is king of enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructure, with 53percent market share according to a recent report by Aaron Vance of SynergyResearch Group. The company's WLAN infrastructure strategy, which has twoproduct lines based on differing architectures, is a little confusing these days.Cisco spins it as something good for customers, providing them with twoalternatives. But it's more a concession to the company's desire to satisfy both aloyal Aironet customer base, those who aren't ready to rip-and-replace, while alsocatering 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 infrastructurestrategy. In the mean time, there's plenty of work to do to try and overcome thefundamental problems its enterprise customers face when rolling out scalable andsecure wireless LANs. Central to the problem is that irascible standards-based802.11 client, which lacks many important capabilities in areas like roaming,security, load-balancing and quality of service. Painfully slow progress in the many802.11 task groups working on various dimensions of the problem led the Wi-FiAlliance to roll out its WPA security initiative in advance of standards. It also ledCisco to establish its CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) program, which pushes aset of proprietary client extensions that overcome limitations in standards-basedsystems.

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

Although all the radio chipmakers, including Intel, stepped up quickly and added CCXcapabilities to their client radios, they haven't done such a good job of keeping upwith Cisco's subsequent releases of CCX 2 and CCX 3. The end result is often amish-mash of client code, depending on the age of the notebook computer. As youmight guess, even though silicon vendors were fully willing to add new CCXfunctionality to their latest designs, they weren't all that thrilled about upgradingolder clients, which made it difficult for Cisco to leverage its infrastructure. Theseinteroperability issues made it difficult to implement advanced wireless services.They also led a fair number of enterprises to turn to third-party client supplicantsfrom vendors like Funk Software and Meetinghouse Communications, which providedthe vendors with a standardized client across multiple notebook generations.

Now, Cisco and Intel are coming to grips with some of these issues while alsoadvancing key strategic initiatives. In addition to the Digital Communities initiative,their Business Class Wireless Suite joint announcement at this week's IntelDeveloper Forum is designed to more tightly integrate Intel Centrino clients withCisco's Unified Wireless Architecture (which, by the way, doesn't look very unifiedto this writer). I suspect much of this is driven by Cisco's desire to fix problemswith CCX. And as part of this effort to become wireless best friends, each companypledged support for important technology initiatives being advanced by the other.Intel announced that it will join Cisco's NAC (Network Admission Control) programwhile Cisco will join Intel's AMT (Active Management Technology) program. These areserious and significant alliances, but that didn't stop me from chuckling when I readthis sentence from Cisco's announcement:

"With Cisco NAC operating with Intel AMT, enterprises will be better able to defendagainst security threats, helping to maintain user and business productivity andreduce the cost of security attacks and improve system remediation."

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