Cisco VoIP: Getting to Mobililty

By Ted Stevenson

June 25, 2008

The networking infrastructure giant has long dominated the IP PBX market; it now seeks to extend its domain to mobile phones.

Cisco Systems has made a couple of announcements about mobility of late.

The first one, issued at the end of April (read it here), snuck past us initially, but we caught up with it. It describes a partnership with Nokia that "extends the rich Cisco Unified IP phone capabilities to Nokia Eseries dual-mode smartphones over Cisco Unified Wireless Networks, to offer users a seamless mobile experience in the enterprise environment and public cellular networks."

Translation: With the help of some software from Cisco, Nokia's dual-mode handsets will be able to place and receive phone calls over Cisco wireless LANs—when they're in range—and save money on cellular minutes. In enterprise telephony parlance, this bit of technology will 'port the desktop phone number' to the Nokia device over Wi-Fi.

It's nice to see Cisco taking the first steps toward mobilizing its formidable IP telephony capabilities. And in characterizing this dual-mode capability as "mobile unified communications" (a stretch in our view), the announcement constitutes at least a tacit endorsement of the idea that mobile phone users in the field should have access to the same communications resources they enjoy at their office desk.

But if the company wants to be a serious contender in anything that could legitimately be called mobile unified communications, Cisco is looking at a serious game of catch-up, as a generation of smaller, more nimble competitors has already got a formidable head start.

The first to take on the challenge of the dual-network telephony were the so-called fixed/mobile convergence (F/MC) vendors—startups such as Kineto Wireless and the other members of its Unlicensed Mobile Access coalition (UMA) or BridgePort Networks and other members of the Mobile Ignite trade group.

These companies figured out how to identify the "best available network" for a call and how to engineer automated, on-the-fly handoffs between carriers' cellular networks and local wireless LANs for mobile users. (With Cisco/Nokia solution, it appears, the user can manually select Wi-Fi or cellular.)

These technical solutions (which relate only to voice, not other communications modes) have been available for years now, although as they are carrier-centric solutions—that is, they are deployed in carrier networks—and the carriers by and large have not seen fit to deploy them yet, they are not currently an option for many would-be adopters.

There are, however, several enterprise-centric solutions that VoIPplanet.com has written about in some detail. Technology from DiVitas Networks, OEM provider FirstHand Technologies, and (to a lesser degree) Siemens Communications, not only goes beyond basic F/MC to mobilize PBX functions and/or other key modes of enterprise communication, they are fully available for deployment now.

For Cisco to get to the place where these providers sit today—again, with a level of functionality that could be reasonably termed mobile unified communications—will not be easy.

Providing extended communications features, such as PBX functions (hold, forward, extension dialing, etc.), e-mail, conferencing, corporate directory access, and the like over cellular networks is not a trivial problem.

Doing this over Wi-Fi is relatively easy, DiVitas CEO Vivek Khuller told VoIPplanet.com in a recent conversation, "because you are in control of the network and it's an all-IP network. However to provide the same feature set over cellular is not a trivial task. That requires coordination—both on the client side and on the server side—between two disparate networks: cell voice and cell data," Khuller said.

"When you combine all three together—cell voice, cell data, and Wi-Fi—it gets even more difficult," Khuller continued. "There could be three people on a single call; one on cell, one on campus Wi-Fi, another on public Wi-Fi—three very different networks, controlled by three separate entities. How do you now manage that call—without echo, latency, with everybody having equal features?"

From DiVitas's perspective, the task is far easier if that functionality was a fundamental goal of the product's initial design—from the ground up. It's tougher to do as an add-on to an architecture that didn't envision it at the outset.

Which brings us to Cisco's second announcement (last week), of the Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine or MSE (read the release here).

If you don't know what a Mobility Services Engines is, don't feel bad. Neither did we. If we've got it right, this is an appliance-based middleware platform that will serve the ambitious goal of normalizing and integrating the entire spectrum of networking technologies, both wired and wireless, allowing the sharing of both data and application functionality among devices, regardless of their network connections.

The "platform offers an open application programming interface (API) for consolidating and supporting an array of mobility services across wireless and wired network," according to the company. That is, software applications—and other appliances—will be able to access resources provided by the MSE.

Cisco will be releasing an initial four software offerings for the MSE platform, one of which—Cisco Mobile Intelligent Roaming (MIR), due out some time in the second half of the year—can facilitate (but not actually execute) handoffs when devices roam between networks.

"If we know that network performance is changing in a way that impacts the application, it might make sense to transition to another network. MIR can provide that intelligence to other platforms that actually trigger the roam," Chris Kozup, Senior Manager, Cisco Mobility Solutions told our sister publication Wi-Fi Planet.com in an interview.

Actually bringing about the connection transfer requires another device or gateway, and one member of Cisco's technology "partner ecosystem"—Silicon Valley startup Agito Networks—announced (in conjunction with the MSE release) that its RoamAnywhere Mobility Router will integrate with the Cisco Engine to provide customers with a full-blown solution for seamless cellular/Wi-Fi handoff.

So, before the end of this year, Cisco VoIP shops will have the tools needed to begin to provide communications capabilities to far-flung mobile workers. For better or worse, it will involve one or more additional devices in the network infrastructure that customers will have to manage and troubleshoot.

Article courtesy of VoIPPlanet.



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