Mobile Wireless Applications Get a Lift from Cisco Motion

By Lisa Phifer

May 28, 2008

Cisco's Mobility Services Engine will empower third-party enterprise application development by providing unified, open access to diverse wireless networks and devices.

Cisco's Mobility Services Engine will empower third-party enterprise application development by providing unified, open access to diverse wireless networks and devices.

Last May, Cisco announced mobility solutions that showed how applications could leverage unified wireless networks to expand insight, collaboration, and awareness. Today, Cisco announced that on June 3rd, it will deliver a platform to fulfill that vision: the Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine (MSE).

"We're revisiting our broad-based Cisco Motion initiative, looking at how we enable IT and simplify the task of taking advantage of mobility," said Chris Kozup, Senior Manager, Cisco Mobility Solutions. "How can we empower mobility without breaking the bank? Our goal is to unify networks, centralize mobility services, and provide a consistent framework to support a variety of applications."

All together now

The MSE addresses three key mobility challenges: integrating information from disjoint networks, managing increasingly diverse devices, and interfacing with infrastructure in a more scalable, cost-effective manner. The MSE is an appliance that uses an open API to deliver central access to information sourced from many access networks and client devices.

"We're taking what was previously disjoint and creating somewhat of a mash-up of network intelligence," explained Kozup. "For example, take a large network with hundreds of Cisco Unified Wireless Network Controllers. Each application had to poll every controller, adding load across the network. Now we can streamline that communication by letting applications interact only with the MSE. This lets controllers do what they do best, while making network intelligence available in a consistent way."

The MSE is a modular services platform with a north-bound API (based on SOAP XML). Bus-based architecture and clustering make the platform scalable, while mobility service modules make it extensible. An "abstraction layer" inside the MSE uses the IETF CAPWAP protocol to interact with network elements, letting applications be more transport-independent.

"You might ask: Why can't you just do this in the controller?" said Kozup. "The controller optimizes rapid delivery of packets, but it is not designed to be a service delivery platform. It doesn't have the computational power that locationing requires or the capacity to store historical data, like intrusions." Moreover, when Cisco extends mobility services beyond Wi-Fi, the MSE will be in a better position to broker application queries for each network/device.

Going above and beyond

Despite its central role, the MSE is just a platform.

"The MSE is essentially a blank canvas--the greatest functionality will come from the mobile services that we can provide," said Kozup. "Cisco could deliver many applications, but our partners and our customers must be able to deliver their own applications."

Cisco also announced today four mobility services software modules: Context Aware (June), Adaptive WIPS (2H08), Mobile Intelligent Roaming (2H08), and Secure Client Manager (1H09). All four are software options that can be run on the MSE platform, if and where needed to support third-party business applications.

"The network has a breadth of information, like location, temperature, time of day. We can combine technologies like choke points and Wi-Fi tags and make all that contextual information available to enable a business flow," explained Kozup. "For example, a nurse might use a phone to request the location of a medical asset, like a wheelchair. An application could use IVR to process the request, use context awareness to determine where that asset is physically located, and then use text-to-speech to deliver the answer."

The Adaptive WIPS module will create a central aggregation point for wireless monitoring.

"Our view is that you need to look at more than Wi-Fi," said Kozup. "We want to correlate what's happening in non-Wi-Fi environments like Bluetooth and RFID and WiMAX. We can also achieve feature velocity by using a separate platform that doesn't impact the production network, and allows more rapid application development."

Looking ahead, Cisco's Secure Client Manager will try to simplify device discovery, provisioning and connection.

"Cisco's view is that we're in the best position to understand the connectivity of that device," said Kozup. "The MSE can look across multiple networks, using our API to feed that intelligence to third-party applications. Mobile device managers are usually focused on wiping the device, updating applications, etc. What they lack is clear visibility into how that device is connecting into the network and connection status--we can provide that."

More intelligent roaming

Mobile Intelligent Roaming (MIR) may be the most exciting of these first four services. MIR will facilitate handoff 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."

In fact, MIR illustrates the vital relationship between Cisco and its "eco-system" of mobility partners. MIR can use the MSE's API to generate notifications, but that alone does not cause device roam or call handover. Taking action really requires a mobility gateway, like RoamAnywhere from Cisco partner Agito Networks.

According to Agito co-founder Pejman Roshan, handover involves three pieces. The first is selecting the right network. Next comes triggering handover in a reliable, deterministic way. Finally, the call must be transparently routed from one network to another when handover occurs.

"What Cisco [MSE] provides is another metric for triggering the handover," said Roshan. "We have location information from our own Mobility Router, and we can see what's happening on the handset through our Mobility Client. But the Wi-Fi infrastructure has the best visibility into what's happening from the network side; the appliance will supply that to us as a composite metric." Agito will combine that metric with factors like location, signal strength, call quality, battery life, and cost to determine whether and when to initiate automatic handovers between Wi-Fi and cellular.

Reshaping the landscape

In this example, Agito will be able to make better decisions in "corner cases," such as when loss is occurring between the AP and controller. On the flip side, Cisco can focus on delivering network visibility, without having to develop (or buy) its own mobility gateway. Furthermore, others may use the MIR to develop new mobility gateways, fostering further innovation.

In fact, Cisco's announcement identifies over a dozen partners, including HP, IBM, Nokia, Oracle, IntelliDOT, Johnson Controls, OATSystems, AeroScout, PanGo, Airetrak, and Agito. By surfacing network intelligence through an open framework, the MSE could potentially be paired with just about any mobile business application.

Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathais is enthusiastic about Cisco's Motion initiative.

"It redraws the classic seven-layer architecture by inserting mobile middleware between the network and applications. I think we'll see other vendors producing similar approaches soon. The cost of hardware has gone down, but the cost of software development hasn't changed all that much over the years. An approach like this that makes functionality available through a framework API squeezes more of that development cost out of the mobility equation."

The Cisco 3350 Mobility Services Engine will be available on June 3rd, priced from $19,995. It must be paired with Cisco Unified Wireless Network Software Release 5.1, which provides network support for the Cisco Motion architecture.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies, including "bleeding edge" mobile wireless offerings.


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