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Cisco Delivers Long Awaited Wireless Management Upgrade

While others in the wireless market seem to float one press release after another about new products and features, Cisco tends to be more deliberate in releasing its latest wireless offerings. In my opinion, Cisco has been a bit too slow in updating the company's aging wireless management framework for its market-leading customer base. But it's here now, and worth talking about.

On the outgoing pile for Cisco wireless management is Wireless Control System (WCS), and the new kid on the block transforms WCS to Cisco Prime Network Control System, or NCS for short. If you didn't catch it, "wireless" has been dropped from the name, and there is purpose behind that change. Cisco sees bigger things for its latest network management system than just the wireless side of the network, but we'll get to that in a bit.

As a WCS customer since 2006, I've been a bit disappointed with the management solution at times. How disappointed? Let's just say that when Cisco wireless competitor Aruba Networks bought the Airwave management product line back in 2008, I was seriously bummed out. Having used both Airwave and early WCS back in the day, I fantasized that Cisco would scrap its own solution early on and purchase Airwave instead of continuing development on WCS. But, alas, WCS soldiered on as Cisco's wireless management offering. It did get better through the years, but it was still frustrating in some important ways.

Long before my environment grew to its current scale of 3,000-plus access points and 10,000 daily peak client devices, WCS would occasionally grind to an almost unusable crawl. Reporting has been problematic in that it was easy to ask for "too much" data, like several months' worth of this or a year's worth of that. Information lookup that did give what I asked for could be painfully slow or inconsistent, and TAC cases invariably confirmed that our config and available resources were adequate. There were also many more annoyances along the way, but WCS' little character flaws simply became a fact of life and my team learned how to squeeze as much as we could out of it while frequently petitioning Cisco for relief. Meanwhile, the system did an overall adequate job during the five years we kept it in service.

With NCS' arrival, I can say first-hand that some improvements over WCS are obvious. I have yet to query the new Oracle-powered NCS database in a way that isn't responded to quickly, and the overall pep of the UI is much appreciated compared with my WCS experiences. I can actually get the data that I need to evaluate a number of decision points going forward with network expansion and upgrades. I have found no report too big to be run, and run quickly. This is a capability that in many ways I have been waiting years for. A big fat thumb's up to Cisco for this. A word of caution, though: There are specific browser requirements for anyone using NCS, and they can trip you up, so read the release notes if you go down the NCS road.

Pretty much all of the configuration, monitoring, and alerting stuff is familiar enough in NCS. The news in this regard is that Cisco now includes limited functionality for network switch monitoring and the ability to use the Mobility Services Engine (MSE) to track wired users along with wireless clients throughout the network. The overall switch support is on the thin side in this incarnation of NCS, but you can guess where this might be going. Cisco's "Borderless Networks" campaign and the growing importance of wireless as a network component that's every bit as important as Ethernet means that common management is likely inevitable.

There is a modest upgrade cost to NCS, which I must admit to finding offensive. WCS was so problematic for so long that, in my opinion, NCS should be a free upgrade for Cisco customers that didn't abandon WCS. Here's hoping that as Cisco begins melding wireless and wired management into a tighter integration, none of WCS' baggage has carried over to the wireless giant's latest management suite. And to Cisco's credit, I do have to say that so far I very much like what I see in NCS.