Cisco Plans Mesh

By Eric Griffith

November 15, 2005

The network giant's entry in the popular metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi space gives some established competitors validation -- plus a chance to crow about how Cisco may be too late.

It was inevitable, really. Cisco Systems , the longtime leader in the networking space (both wired and wireless) bought into wireless LAN switches by buying Airespace when that market started to heat up. Now it's putting that purchase to work by entering a market which is dominated by startups: mesh networks.

Cisco's mesh offering will initially consist of a single ruggedized access point, the Aironet 1500, which will have two Wi-Fi radios inside: an 802.11b/g radio for client connections, and an 802.11a radio for backhaul mesh connections. It will use the Lightweight Access Point Protocol (LWAPP), and will be controlled by the centralized architecture it acquired from Airespace earlier this year -- which is now called Cisco Centralized WLAN.

The company also announced today that it is further unifying its wired and wireless networking software and hardware by creating Wireless Service Modules (WiSM) to integrate with its popular Catalyst 6500 series of modular switches. Each of these blades can control 300 APs, so with the maximum of five modules, the 6500 can run up to 1,500 LWAPP-based Aironet routers for an enterprise. Cisco is also making a wireless control module for the Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR) family.

"For the first time, we're moving from wireless as an overlay network to truly integrated," says Ben Gibson, Cisco's Director of Marketing for Wireless and Mobility. The centralized architecture modules will extend management to all but the very oldest of the Cisco Aironet access points. In most cases, the hardware must be upgraded with new firmware to support LWAPP.

This centralized control will include the new 1500 series mesh APs, giving Cisco a leg up in extending corporate networks with established customers to the outdoors.

Cisco certainly isn't limiting its mesh plans to campuses. Mesh gets big press these days as the wireless topology of choice in citywide wireless network deployments, and Cisco plans to play there just like everyone else. In fact, the Aironet 1500 series is already in use in cities like Dayton, Ohio (pop. 166,000), where one square mile of the downtown has free Wi-Fi access. Dayton plans to cover all of its 55 square miles by the end of 2006.

Smaller Lebanon, Oregon (pop. 13,000) has 40 percent of town covered using the Cisco equipment, with plans to offer more services for city workers and first responders. Gibson believes this kind of market might be the better opportunity for mesh networks in the near term.

Tropos Networks might agree. Arguably the leader in the Wi-Fi mesh space, the company claims to have 250 municipal networks deployed now (or at least in process), most of which are in smaller cities and towns across the globe. The company is also primed to become the equipment supplier to the most watched municipal wireless rollout ever: Wireless Philadelphia.

"I looked at [Cisco's plans] and went, 'Wow, they're 250 deployments behind us,'" says Ellen Kirk, Vice President of Marketing at Tropos. She intimates that it will take the big company a while to catch up to the innovations her company has announced this week.

Rick Rotondo, Director of Marketing for the Mesh Networks Product Group at Motorola — one of the other established companies in the mesh space, along with Nortel — thinks Cisco building its mesh control into a centralized management system designed for indoor access points might be a mistake.

"Believe me, outdoor systems are totally different versus what you worry about with indoor equipment," says Rotondo.

He also thinks that going up against his company and Nortel, both of which have had mesh products for years now, will give even Cisco's customers pause. "It would be different with Cisco the Goliath versus only the [mesh] runts," he says.

Those so-called "runts" include Tropos, which Rotondo says has a "first generation" product, compared to Cisco's new "second generation" product — this is because Tropos uses a single radio in its equipment compared to Cisco's dual-radio solution. This means the "third generation" providers are the multi-radio mesh equipment companies like Motorola and startups like BelAir Networks and Strix Systems.

Nan Chen, Vice President of Marketing at Strix, says, "Cisco entering the market is a validation for sure, but Strix has the technical leadership position."

Strix provides a "chassis-based solution" for mesh hardware, with modular radio cards that can be ordered as needed. Chen says the fixed configuration that Cisco will offer (he calls it a cookie-cutter or "pizza box" solution), while easy to configure, won't provide the capacity and bandwidth needed for outdoor metropolitan deployments. Strix claims it has stolen customers from Tropos in head-to-head trials because of that fact.

If that's the case, why isn't Strix equipment going to power Wireless Philadelphia? Strix says it didn't have products available when Philly issued its RFP, thus it had no partners with proposals for the city. However, it is or will be part of RFPs from providers hoping to land other big city contracts such as Houston, San Francisco and maybe even Chicago.

Motorola's Rotondo scoffs at the idea that Cisco validates the mesh equipment space. However, he notes that the company "learns quick, and can adapt."

"You can't discount Cisco," he says.

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