Cisco's Curious Choice For New High-Speed Wireless Bridges

The 802.11 wireless standard includes bridging, and Cisco's history with wireless bridge products is long and distinguished. When Cisco purchased Aironet back in 1999, the networking giant started down the path towards what would become market domination in wired access and bridging, but Cisco hasn't been what anyone would call progressive when it comes to their wireless bridge product line.

September 23, 2010

3 Min Read
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The 802.11 wireless standard includes bridging, and Cisco's history with wireless bridge products is long and distinguished. When Cisco purchased Aironet back in 1999, the networking giant started down the path towards what would become market domination in wired access and bridging, but Cisco hasn't been what anyone would call progressive when it comes to their wireless bridge product line.

Though thousands of distinctive Cisco/Aironet yagi and parabolic dish antennas dot city rooftops far and wide, these antennas connect back to bridging hardware that has been slow to evolve. I support almost a dozen Cisco 802.11g and 11a 54 Mbps bridge links, and have often praised them for their reliability. At the same time, I have longed for something faster in this role from Cisco as I watch one competitor's higher-speed product after another come to market. At long last, Cisco is set to bring on the bridging heat, but what and how is a bit surprising.

For context, let's zoom out a bit and quantify Cisco's larger wireless strategy in simple terms. Though they still provide autonomous, stand alone access points, the company's wireless business unit clearly wants customers to embrace their thin WLAN solution. This framework is built on mostly-dumb APs, controllers and the company's Wireless Control System (WCS) for management and monitoring. WCS is sold (and often oversold, in my opinion) as a complete management solution that can provide limited monitoring of Cisco legacy access points and bridges along with being the brains of their flagship thin wireless architecture. Old news, yes? Here's why this information is relevant to Cisco's latest high-speed bridge offering. 

Cisco recently announced a new partnership with Exalt Communications. In the October time frame, Cisco will offer Exalt's ExtendAir r5005 5 GHz wireless bridge. Ahem... let me rephrase. Cisco will re-badge someone else's bridge hardware and sell it to Cisco customers.

The significance? On the one hand, the r5005 has a very cool feature set and comes from Exalt's respected ExtendAir product line. On the other, it's not Cisco's. WCS can't do anything with it. It's not even IOS... Good technicians will adapt to Exalt's straight-forward interface, but for corn's sake, why couldn't the biggest wireless network company in the world give us something that we can manage with our Cadillac-priced Cisco WCS management system?In many ways, Cisco's Airespace acquisition (what is now their lightweight wireless product line) in 2005 still doesn't feel complete from the product integration standpoint. Those of us who lived through it and drive big Cisco wireless networks can't help but wonder if history is repeating itself on a smaller scale with the Exalt partnership.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very much looking forward to up to 162 Mbps of aggregate throughput in a visually pleasing package. At full throttle, it kicks butt over Cisco's existing bridges by a multiplier of 5x. The features in the r5005 rival those in good network switches, including 802.1q VLAN tagging, Ethernet rate limiting and extremely low Ethernet latency. The r5005 even has an integrated 3 port 10/100 switch with one PoE port! Outstanding, indeed. This unit will come in handy for replacing existing links that have gotten too small for what traverses them and will enable contemporary applications like getting networked video cameras in hard-to-cable locations.

But you'll have to manage it outside of WCS, your single platform for wireless management.

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