Product Analysis: Cisco Small Business Communications System

Cisco's SBCS brings big-enterprise features into an SMB-size package.

August 10, 2007

6 Min Read
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What's that? Your growing business could benefit from unified communications, but you figure high-end gear is out of reach? You're not alone: In a recent Forrester survey, just 15 percent of companies with fewer than 1,000 employees had even installed IP PBXes. There's clearly a huge untapped market here, and Cisco Systems, a vendor traditionally known for its pricey enterprise-class products, has an answer in its Small Business Communications System, or SBCS.

Cisco isn't the first to eye this opportunity: D-Link Corp., Netgear and other SOHO vendors have brought such high-end features as PoE (Power over Ethernet), controller-based WLANs and VoIP to SMB customers either through their own products or via partners. However, Cisco is the first enterprise networking vendor to move into this space.

We reviewed Cisco's new SBCS in our Syracuse University Real World Lab. The product line includes Cisco's Catalyst Express 520 switch, which lists for $1,395; the 520-Series WLAN controller, at $1,799; and the Unified Communications 500-Series VoIP gateway, which starts at $4,195. Our $7,888 as-tested list price includes two compatible APs, which start at $499. All pieces are available now, on a mix-and-match basis so companies can customize the SBCS to their needs and budgets.

Pieces to the PuzzleThe Cisco Unified Communications 500 Series for Small Businesses, or UC 500, is essentially a scaled-down version of Cisco's ISR (Integrated Services Router) platform. The UC 500 sports an eight-port PoE switch, 4 FXO (analog line) ports, 4 FXS ports (to connect analog phones), one Ethernet WAN connection port and one uplink port to connect an external switch. The UC 500 comes preloaded with both Cisco Unified Communications Manager Express, which handles call routing and other VoIP functions, and Cisco Unity Express, which handles more advanced applications like voicemail and auto attendant/interactive voice response. All the features you'd expect are in there, including conferencing, intercom, and hold music from an internal file or an external source via the UC 500's audio jack. "MacArthur Park," anyone?

Cisco also offers integration with enterprise applications, such as CRM, and support for phone-based XML apps. As for devices, any Cisco IP phone, including the 7921 Wi-Fi phone, can be used in conjunction with the UC 500. The company says an eight-user VoIP deployment will list for about $699 per user when combined with Cisco's base IP phone, not including Wi-Fi and controller.

The UC 500 does triple duty as a router, including NAT, as well as a firewall and a VPN appliance with both SSL and IPSec. It can also be configured as a Wi-Fi AP. Expandability is handled through Cisco's Catalyst Express 520 Series Switch, which adds eight additional 10/100 PoE ports to the network. Larger systems with additional port density should be available in the upcoming months.

In addition to the UC 500's own wireless features, Cisco offers the 526 Wireless Express Mobility Controller. Whereas the UC 500 can support any VoIP phone in Cisco's portfolio, the Cisco 526 is designed to work only with APs in the Wireless Express product line. Today, that means your sole option is the 521 Wireless Express AP, which is similar in form factor to Cisco's 1130AG but offers only an 802.11b/g radio. On the bright side, both autonomous and LWAPP-based APs are available, and we expect other APs to be added to the Wireless Express line in the future to address upcoming Wi-Fi radio standards.

While AP choice is currently limited, the Cisco 526 offers a wealth of features, including the abovementioned LWAPP support, which allows APs to be centrally configured and managed; auto-RF management, to dynamically configure radio output power and frequencies of APs; and support for multiple SSIDs.What separates the Cisco 526 from enterprise brethren like the 2100- and 4400-series WLAN controllers is scale: The 526 supports only six APs per controller, for a total of 12 APs using two controllers. In addition, advanced wireless applications, like Wi-Fi location, are not currently available.

Testing Time

All elements of the SBCS performed at the level of quality we've come to expect from Cisco's enterprise products. Moreover, the company has taken great strides in making its products easier to set up out of the box. For example, FXS ports on the UC520 come preconfigured with extensions, and IP phones automatically register with extensions as they're plugged into the network. Using a simple Web configuration utility, we quickly got a wireless network running on our Cisco 526, including 802.1X and WPA support. In a couple of hours we had a working wireless network and VoIP system.

While it's easy to get a basic system up and running, the amount of customization available within the SBCS will be overwhelming for some SMB network admins. Cisco says it expects to make most sales be in conjunction with VARs, which will guide the configuration and deployment process. In fact, streamlined hardware setup is as much designed to help VARs get the system up and running so they can focus on customization as it is to help IT staff trying to deploy things themselves.

Configuration and management are largely handled through Cisco Configuration Assistant, or CCA. The product incorporates a variety of configuration tools from Cisco's portfolio, but we found the look and feel most reminiscent of Cisco Network Assistant, a graphical tool designed to help manage Cisco's enterprise gear. CCA is able to manage much of what's in SBCS, though there are some stumbling blocks: For example, the wireless AP built into the UC 520 is managed as a separate network from the Cisco 526, because the UC 520's internal AP is not LWAPP-compatible. Some other features have to be managed within a product's individual Web UI rather than through CCA, creating a somewhat disjointed management experience. Cisco says it expects to address both issues in future software updates to SBCS.Our major stumbling block, however, lies in using CCA for day-to-day management. While the tool does provide numerous network views, including topology and "front panel" views, CCA still brings a feature-oriented management style to the table. We would have preferred a process-oriented approach that keeps day-to-day management tasks, like administering voicemail and configuring extensions, separate from the complexity of the rest of the system, similar to how Microsoft handles Windows administration today. A startup wizard and activity-based wizards for the most important and repetitive tasks would complement feature-oriented management for less-common adjustments. Fortunately for IT shops that want to outsource all this angst, the SBCS can be remotely managed by a VAR.

SOHO AP

Cisco Mobility Express

Cisco Enterprise Unified WLAN Architecture

802.11a AP support

Depends

No

Yes

802.11b/g AP support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Auto RF support

No

Yes

Yes

802.1x authentication

Depends

Yes

Yes

LWAPP Support

No

Yes

Yes

Guest Access support

No

Yes

Yes

Multiple SSID support

No

Yes

Yes

Wi-Fi location support

No

No

Yes

Sean Ginevan is a technology analyst with the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected].

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