The second company to present at Tech Field Day was Cisco. This is the company that I’ve had the most experience with in my wireless career, so getting to hear from them in this setting held some wonderful appeal. While I was fairly familiar with the product line, I hoped that Cisco would give me some insight into things.
Upon arrival at the Cisco campus on Tasman Drive, we started walking through the building to our meeting room. The wireless people were taking pictures of all the antennas in the area and geeking out about all the equipment around the building. After we reached our briefing room, we got seated and started listening to our first presenter, Jim Florwick, who was remote and presenting over Webex. As he went over the basic outline of Cisco wireless strategy and philosophy, it started to dawn on me that I’d seen much of this material before. I followed along as we talked about the congestion in the 2.4 GHz spectrum and the need to start moving clients into the 5GHz range for additional throughput gains. We got a quick overview of Cisco’s CleanAir technology, which is the technology acquired from the Cognio purchase embedded into the 3502 access point (AP) line. This overview felt a little more like marketing, which is not necessarily the thing to bring to a Field Day.
Around about the time the first presenter started wrapping up, there were murmurs amongst the wireless delegates. I asked Jennifer Huber what all the fuss was about, and she told me, “Do you know where we are? This is THE Building 14!” The importance of our location was quickly apparent when someone pulled up a screenshot of the Wireless Control Server from Cisco’s website and just as plain as day, there was the third floor of the building we were currently occupying. Since building 14 is where the bulk of the wireless development and testing occurs, it makes total sense the the majority of the example screenshots on Cisco’s website would be of that building. For the wireless nerds, I suppose it was really like returning home.
The next presentation was from David Stiff, who is the Senior Product Manager for the Wireless Networking Business Unit for Cisco. He went over a lot of the same material that we had just discussed, only more in depth. He talked about technologies such as Client Link and CleanAir. The only problem with this type of presentation is that it loses the delegates attention. Compared to the MetaGeek or Aerohive presentations, this one felt more like a lecture. I don’t doubt the that the information was great and wonderful to know, but since it was a lot of the same as what I’ve seen before, it didn’t hold as much appeal as the MetaGeek demo or the Aerohive show-and-tell. In some ways, it felt more like a presentation that would be given to people less familiar with the ins and outs of wireless networking. As Jennifer remarked to me later, “Not only have I heard that presentation before several times, I’ve given it several times as well.”
After lunch, we got to hear about the in-building cellular technology that Cisco is partnering to bring to the market. This presentation felt a little out of place for this crowd. A couple of the delegates mentioned that they had looked at it before, but the need for it was spotty at best and the market was pretty thin. To me, this is the explanation for why Cisco is partnering to bring it to the market rather than developing it in house or buying the developer outright. The idea behind in-building cellular is using the existing category 5/6 cabling in the building to help amplify cellular signals in areas where there is severe signal degradation. I’m betting that this technology is designed to be marketed to healthcare, where the wireless spectrum is congested and cell phones barely work as it is. Another possible option is a rural areas where cell coverage is spotty at best, like the second floor of my house only on a larger scale. All in all, I think in-building cellular is a little too much of a niche product to be useful to me in the near future.
Next up was David Stephenson talking about next generation hotspots. David was one of the people responsible for the 802.11u amendment, and it was apparent that he knew his stuff. 802.11u deals with scenarios where the user isn’t necessarily authorized for access to a given wireless network. Think about being at the airport and seeing that there are tons of wireless networks to join, but you don’t know any of the keys to join them. This is where the free hotspot idea comes in. But since free hotspots are not necessarily available everywhere, a different idea must be considered. 802.11u addresses this by creating what looks to me like a hotspot federation or roaming agreement. Similar to the agreements that allow cellular coverage across different provider towers, 802.11u would allow users to log in using credentials for the networks they are authorized for, and in return gain the ability to access certain services on a given network. For instance, a user authorized to use AT&T hotspots may be able to use some internet services on a Boingo network. For those that wish to restrict things much more, you can limit access to very basic things like emergency services. One of the use cases that David talked about was using this next generation hotspot to allow users to log into wireless networks in a retail environment and receive coupons on their smartphones based on their login credentials. Exciting stuff to hear about, and lots to look forward in the future.
The last presenter was Jameson Blandford, a Cisco TME who is somewhat famous for a competitive analysis video on Youtube:
Jameson’s portion of the presentation was NDA’d due to a lot of restricted competitive analysis. Based on what he said and things that I observed later during Tech Field Day, I’ve got a lot of thinking and analysis to do about the current state of the arms race amongst the various wireless vendors.
As a Cisco partner engineer, I get to hear from Cisco quite a bit. Their presentation methodology is polished and crisp. However, in the case of Tech Field Day I think they were just a bit off the mark. As I’ve said before , Tech Field Day delegates aren’t your usual group of decision makers and slightly technical people. We’re nerds and geeks. We like seeing how things work and hearing about the gory details. Cisco has always presented good opportunities in the past to get into the nuts and bolts of how things work. Maybe a demo of CleanAir healing a network, similar to the video above. Or perhaps an opportunity for us to see even a canned demo of a next generation hotspot. Something to keep our attention rather than the endless parade of Powerpoint slides. I never want presenters at Tech Field Day to have a bad outing, so I’m hoping that my words here will help encourage Cisco to step up next time and hit one out of the park. Most of the info was great, but knowing how to reach your captive Tech Field Day audience is just as key.
If you’d like to learn more about Cisco and their wireless technology, head on over to http://www.cisco.com/go/wireless. In addition, you can follow their wireless information on Twitter at @cisco_mobility
Cisco was a sponsor of Tech Field Day, and as such was responsible for a portion of my travel expenses and hotel accommodations. In addition, they provided lunch for the delegates on Thursday afternoon. They were not promised, nor were they offered any consideration in the writing of this review. All of the opinions and analysis offered here are mine and mine alone and are given freely and without reservation.