Cisco Gears Up For Wireless With Integration Of Airespace

With the recent close of Cisco Systems' acquisition of wireless switch vendor Airespace, the company is now at work integrating both the technology and channels. Dave Leonard and Brett Galloway, co-vice presidents and general managers of Cisco's Wireless Networking Business Unit, spoke with Managing Editor/News Larry Hooper about the efforts. Here are excerpts:

CRN: Cisco's acquisition of Airespace was a change in direction for the company, which had espoused that 'fat,' or intelligent access points, were the way to go vs. 'thin' access points managed by a switch. What changed?

LEONARD: The reason Cisco was interested in the Airespace products and technology is that we really believe that this product delivered to our corporate enterprise customers the ease of use that these kinds of customers demand. The traditional vertical market that was comprised of wireless networks that became mission-critical had the expertise to manage these devices as stand-alone devices. They needed a lot of flexibility, capabilities and features. The corporate enterprise customers are different. They know they want wireless, but they are a little afraid still. They want ease of use, ease of management and still very robust features.

CRN: So this isn't part of Cisco's push into the SMB market? Airespace had been strong in the midmarket.

LEONARD: It certainly applies. Ease of use is the key issue for those kinds of customers. But architecturally, we see it scaling across the span.

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CRN: How does the Airespace technology fit with Cisco's wireless technology? What's the plan for integrating the product lines?

LEONARD: We will continue our current product portfolio. We do have many customers that want to transition to the new architecture. Customers aren't going to go in and rip access points out of their ceilings, so we will allow our access points to convert to the lightweight access point protocol sometime later this year. So, our access points and the access point that Airespace brought will all work with this architecture.

GALLOWAY: Part of the process is integrating the access points and integrating the technology into Cisco's routing and switching platforms as well. But we do plan to continue with our appliance model. We have a wireless LAN controller that is plugged into the existing infrastructure. Some customers prefer this, but some prefer that it be integrated into their existing infrastructure. As Airespace, we couldn't do that. Integrating with Cisco architecture becomes very compelling.

CRN: So we can expect at some point that your wireless LAN controller will end up on a blade inside, say, a Catalyst switch?

GALLOWAY: Yes, and in a variety of platforms. There are opportunities in the data center and in branch products as well, for example.

CRN: Now that we've covered product integration, let's talk about the integration of the two companies' channel partner base. What happens to the former Airespace partners?

GALLOWAY: Cisco has done a very good job of throwing down the red carpet for the Airespace VARs. There is a huge amount of concern that they are taken care of. Cisco has rolled out special programs to help those VARs with the transition, in terms of discounts and access to products. To be sure, not everyone will come over, but we have been pretty successful moving over our channel partners. LEONARD: There has been a lot of interest from Cisco partners, too. It fills a gap we weren't covering well.

GALLOWAY: Part of Airespace's appeal to channel partners is that it's a product that is easy to show. A great demo. It is easier to sell effectively even if you don't have a highly trained RF sales force. A lot of the Airespace VARs signed up because they saw the opportunity to 'wireless-enable' their sales force and sales engineers rather easily. We have that opportunity times ten at Cisco.

CRN: Does this acquisition put an end to the 'thin vs. fat' debate?

LEONARD: I never called it a debate. Fat, or what we call autonomous, access points, have advantages and thin has many advantages as well.

GALLOWAY: I think the debate started off on the wrong foot. Thin vs. fat was determined by how much memory an access point has, and the Airespace access points have plenty of memory so it's not even accurate to call them thin. They are different because of lot of the management is central.

LEONARD: We have many customers who don't want a controller and don't understand why they would want one.

CRN: On the acquisition, who sought whom?

LEONARD: We approached them.

CRN: Brett, did Cisco's offer surprise you?

GALLOWAY: I was somewhat taken aback. But the opportunity to vastly accelerate this product's adoption was attractive.

CRN: Brett, you came to Cisco with the Airespace acquisition. Any big changes with the move?

GALLOWAY: I was CEO of Airespace for a little under two and a half years. Before Airespace, I was at Packeteer. I was a co-founder. I am a big believer in the channel.

Airespace's strategy was very much a channel strategy, much as Packeteer's was. The opportunity was to help channels take advantage of the emerging opportunity in wireless, not just to sell equipment but also to deliver value. Wireless is this thing that is not well understood by the vast majority of the market. It's in filling in that gap between lack of understanding and need that value is added.

CRN: Mystery equals margin.

GALLOWAY: Absolutely. That's the reason we used an indirect strategy, and it was very successful.