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Cisco sharpens router blades for remote networks

Over the last eight months, Cisco Systems Inc. has been in the process of redefining its approach to infrastructure for branch offices. In response to the growing need for increased bandwidth and functionality in remote offices, the networking systems provider has developed a program called the "full-service branch office." This group is developing router blades that enable a range of new functions, from content networking to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), by simply adding new modules. One of the first of these products, the content-engine networking module, is already out on the market. Though the new strategy has been under wraps since its inception eight months ago, Ian Pennell, vice president and general manager of Cisco's access group, discussed the approach in an interview with SearchNetworking.com.

Why is Cisco focusing on branch offices?
In the U.S., about 50% of employees work in branch offices. In addition, there has been a drive toward using browser-based interfaces for applications that require increased connectivity. You can get more productivity out of 50% of the workforce if they can access the same applications as those people working in the corporate headquarters. That requires more than basic connectivity. You now have to build robust networks. You need things like security, voice over Internet protocol, content. I meet with network designers and they say, 'Please help me grow and keep what I've got. Don't force me to redo major parts of my network.' What benefits can businesses gain from these blades?
The biggest benefit is that now network designers can lay out a multi-year vision for these remote offices. In the past, network planning was something that would happen to you. A company would make an acquisition, and the new company would have different types of LANs. You had to scramble to make ends meet and put the pieces together. But now networks have become a business asset. Voice and data are traveling on the same networks. Network planning has become critical. Now it is all about what applications you will be using next, how to improve the productivity of employees, how to get the next round of resources. We are looking at networks in a multi-year map, rather than reacting to the crisis du jour. Describe the products that Cisco plans to launch in this category.
We already have a line of routers in this market. Now we can add modules onto the routers. We have one for security that uses a virtual private network (VPN). We have been shipping voice for five years now, and we are incrementally improving on it. Now we have a router blade for voice. We also have a content networking blade. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. All companies will not want the same combination of intelligent services. Customers can mix and match modules. It's the Swiss Army knife approach. What kinds of module should users expect to see next?
We are looking at major trends like wireless local area networks and other technologies that are coming about as alternative ways to connect. We are also looking at things in the voice area, logical extensions to basic connectivity, including call management and messaging. How do these products affect remote management of branch office infrastructure?
By taking this approach, it is more consistent is terms of setup and configuration. You can replicate the permissions. It simplifies that aspect of setting up the modules. We also have remote management tools that manage the physical devices and IP addresses. If you want to implement policies at the branch or regional level or implement policies across the whole infrastructure, you can do that through common tools. Does this simplify or complicate life for network managers?
You get different answers from different customers. It depends on where they are along the spectrum of evolution. Some companies for organizational reasons have separate security departments or separate departments for voice. In that instance, combining these functions will not help; it will make things more complex.

But many companies now are moving toward combining voice and security and data. Corporations are looking for better leverage, and this approach is more appealing. It is one of the trends we are responding to. So in some sense, yes, it is more complicated, but we are doing also doing a lot more with the network. How do you see the role of the branch office evolving, and how will that affect infrastructure needs?
The big thing is making the people in the branch offices equal citizens in terms of access to enterprise-level services. The whole beauty of networking is to bring everyone up to the same level of access to information. When we equalize the access to information, then the cream will rise to the top, so skill sets and not location is what will count.

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What is Cisco offering to enterprises with distributed networks that other vendors are not offering?
No one else is offering the ability to incrementally build with these capabilities. A few players at the lower end offer security with limited routing. As you move up into the middle of the space, there really isn't any competition there.

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