Cisco’s Catalyst for Change


You’ve probably heard by now of the big launch of Cisco’s new 802.11ax (neé Wi-Fi 6) portfolio of devices. Cisco did a special roundtable with a group of influencers from the community called Just The Tech. Here’s a video from that event covering the APs that were released, the 9120:

Fred always does a great job of explaining the technical bits behind the APs. But one thing that caught my eye here is the name of the AP – Catalyst. Cisco has been using Aironet for their AP line since they purchased Aironet Wireless Communications back in 1999. The name was practically synonymous with wireless technologies for many people in the industry that worked exclusively with Cisco technologies.

So, is the name change something we should be concerned about?

A Rose Is a Rose Is An AP

Cisco moving toward a unified naming convention for their edge solutions makes a lot of sense. Ten years ago, wireless was still primarily 802.11g-based with 802.11n still a few months away from being proposed and ratified. Connectivity hadn’t quite yet reached the ubiquitous levels of wireless that we see today. The iPhone was only about to be on its third revision.

Cisco Catalyst devices were still the primary method of getting users connected to the network. Even laptop users hunted for Ethernet ports everywhere instead of just connecting to wireless. Ethernet was more reliable and faster than 54Mbps (at best) and fighting contention with all the other devices around. Catalyst stood for reliability.

In the time since, wireless has become the new edge device connectivity. No longer do we hunt for Ethernet ports unless we have a specific need for one. Laptops don’t come with dedicated wired networking options any longer. In 2019, wireless is king. And Aironet is the wireless name that Cisco has built. So why the change?

In short, because edge connectivity isn’t wired versus wireless any longer. Instead, it’s unified. Whether it was because of the idiotic decisions made by Gartner to required wired switching for their wireless Magic Quadrant (TM) or because people stopped thinking about Ethernet except to power wireless access points, the fact is that the edge no longer has wires. For Cisco, this means that Catalyst switches aren’t the edge any longer. So the name doesn’t have the same power as it once did.

However, the Aironet name has also lost its luster. Why? Because Aironet is a remnant of Cisco’s pre-controller AP past. The line of APs that most people are likely using in their office right now aren’t from the Aironet heritage. Instead, they are based on technology acquired by Cisco from Airespace that Cisco bought in 2005 to add controller-based technology to their portfolio. And, aside from references to Airespace in the code of the Wireless LAN Controllers (WLC), the line never really had a brand like Catalyst or Aironet.

Today, Cisco has started the move away from using Airespace technology in their controllers. As this video from 2018 shows, Cisco has begun to migrate their controller OS to a more modern platform instead of relying on modifying the old Airespace code again and again. This means that development going forward should be more rapid and less resultant on the whims of keeping everything running properly on a codebase over a decade old.

Branding New

So, that explains the reasons why Cisco might want to refresh everything. But why the naming of the APs? Why not just rely on Aironet and keep that branding going forward?

Well, because they want to make end users believe that the network is the same no matter if it’s wired or wireless. They want buyers to believe that Catalyst stands for edge connectivity, no matter where that edge might be. And, unless they really screw up and start making us think these new APs are switches they’ll be able to pull off this branding exercise fairly well.

That’s because users have stopped caring about the wired versus wireless debate. Instead, they only care about speed and reliability. 802.11ax will help on both fronts, and Cisco wants to capitalize on that by making these new APs feel different. And the best way to do that is by rebranding them.

Wireless professionals don’t care about the name. Most of the time they just refer to the model number anyway. And while Cisco’s model numbering strategies seem to be getting a bit crowded in the 9000-level of things, this makes a lot of sense to distance themselves from their past. The old 802.11ac APs are still very viable and will likely be useful all they way until the end of their life. But when the time comes to pull them out, you’ll be retiring Aironet and Airespace along with them. Even if you didn’t realize those were the branding names of those APs.


Tom’s Take

Branding matters. Or it doesn’t. Either you love the name of the thing you’ve been using or you couldn’t care less. Whether it’s an iPhone or a car or an access point, everything has a name and a number attached to it. Cisco has decided, for better or worse, to unify the edge under the Catalyst name. Maybe it will stick and reduce confusion with customers. Maybe it will be hated enough that they’ll bring back the Aironet name in a couple of cycles to “get back to basics” as it were. But for now, the catalyst for change at Cisco leads to a unified edge solution.

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