Cisco looks out for the little guy

Cisco Systems Inc. is set to refresh its offerings for small and medium-sized enterprises on Monday with an eye to easing their IT burdens and helping them roll out IP (Internet Protocol) telephony and wireless LANs.

The broad array of products includes two new lines of switches and Cisco's first video phone, but the main thrust of the rollout is to provide large-enterprise capabilities to smaller customers. The rollout comes in the wake of new midmarket software initiatives by IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. Vendors see big sales opportunities in small and medium-sized businesses, but face special challenges there, especially in the midmarket, according to industry analysts.

Cisco has developed one series of switches for small enterprises, the Cisco Catalyst Express 500 Series, and another for medium-sized businesses, called the Catalyst 2960 series. The vendor will help channel partners package the switches with gear and software for new network applications such as IP telephony and wireless LANs. Also Monday, Cisco intends to release upgrades to telephony, multimedia communications and network management software that will work with the new gear.

For small enterprises with between 20 and 250 users, Cisco is unveiling the Catalyst Express 500 Series switches, available in multiple configurations with 10/100M bps (bits-per-second) Ethernet, 10/100M bps POE (power over Ethernet) and 10/100/1000M bps Ethernet. POE can power IP phones and wireless LAN access points without the need for a separate power cord.

Despite carrying the Catalyst name, the new line isn't just scaled down from Cisco's enterprise switch line, according to Cisco.

"It's not a mini-me. It's products designed for this space," Moran said.

A key difference is that Cisco left its CLI (command-line interface) out of the Catalyst Express switches entirely, he said. The CLI, well-known among experienced Cisco engineers, has been offered along with a graphical user interface on Cisco switches, but is rarely used in smaller enterprises, said Azmir Mohamed, product line manager for desktop switching. In its place is the Web-based Cisco Network Assistant 3.0. This management system, which can also manage other Cisco switches and routers, now includes a "slider" control, similar to the one in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, that customers can use to easily set the overall level of security for a switch or router, he said.

The company also is introducing another tool, the Cisco IP Communications Express Quick Configuration Tool, for easy setup of wireless LANs and IP phones with extensions. It should now take less than 5 minutes per user station to set up a multimedia IP network, including voice mail, Moran said.

For medium-sized enterprises, the Catalyst 2960 Series is being introduced to complement the Catalyst 2950 Series. The hardware and IOS (Internetwork Operating System) software in the new switch line are consistent with current higher-end Catalyst switches, which will make it easier for Cisco to bring new features to them, Mohamed said. Also new in the Catalyst 2960 line is Gigabit Ethernet line ports. New provisioning, management and monitoring tools also are on the way, Cisco said.

Cisco's big rollout for smaller shops

Cisco on Monday is set to announce switches for small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as new IP phones.

Products intended for small businesses include the following:

- Cisco Catalyst Express 500 Series switches

- Call Manager Express version 3.3, the latest lightweight version of Cisco's call processing software, featuring basic contact center features

- Cisco Unity Express version 2.2 for voice mail and Automated Attendant

Products Cisco is providing for midsize enterprises include these:

- Catalyst 2960 Series switches

- Cisco Unity Connection version 1.1, which handles integrated messaging, speech recognition and call-routing rules for as many as 1,500 users

- Cisco Mobile Connect for Single Number Reach, which lets employees take calls on two phones, such as a desk phone and cell phone, and switch from one to the other

- Cisco MeetingPlace Express, a lighter version of the company's voice and Web conferencing, with support for as many as 120 simultaneous users

- Cisco IP Contact Center Express version 4.0, with support for as many as 300 agents, up from 200.

The new IP phones are designed for use in any size enterprise:

- Cisco IP Phone 7941G, designed for transaction workers, with two programmable line/feature buttons

- Cisco IP Phone 7961G, designed for administrative assistants and managers, with six programmable line/feature buttons

- Cisco IP Phone 7985G, a video phone with 9-inch color LCD and high-quality video camera.

Three new IP phones are coming with Monday's product rollout. The 7941G and 7961G models are similar to the existing 7940 and 7960 products but have higher-resolution monochrome screens. They are intended for both small and medium-sized customers. Also coming Monday is the IP Phone 7985G, which has a 9-inch color LCD and high-quality video camera, Moran said. Until now, Cisco has not made video phones, turning instead to partner Tandberg LP for displays. Cisco officials have said this was because the company was waiting for the market for videophones to take shape.

LeTourneau University, based in Longview, Texas, already uses Cisco video phone call capabilities (currently via PCs) to keep administrators at remote sites in the loop. It has eight campuses spread around the state.

"You can do things when you're looking right at a person that you can't do otherwise," said Ken Johnson, manager of network services at LeTourneau. "These people can sort of feel like orphans after a while."

Cisco in the past has tried to serve small and medium-sized businesses primarily with versions of its enterprise platforms, industry analysts and others said.

"When we first started in this business, there wasn't really a good solution for small and medium businesses, especially small businesses," said Brian Sims, vice president of system integrator Advanced Technical Solutions LLC, a Cisco partner in Scott Depot, West Virginia, that specializes in integrated voice and data networks. Setting up such systems for small businesses meant adapting relatively high-priced products designed for large enterprises, he said. Cisco's new lineup, along with the ISR (Integrated Services Router) line introduced last year, delivers what they need, he said. The integrator can now set up capabilities such as unified voice mail and e-mail for smaller customers and even manage the network for them if they don't have an IT manager on staff, which is often the case, Sims said.

"Rightsizing" large-enterprise products for the midmarket worked when networking was largely a matter of ports and speeds, but networks are taking on new responsibilities such as security and application acceleration, said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Robert Whiteley.

"Now it's not so easy to rightsize it, because you have to pick all the features and functions you want," Whiteley said. Delivering what the midmarket wants now requires a specific product and package of capabilities, as well as management tools that are easier to use, he said.

To judge Cisco's commitment to small and medium-sized customers, look for followup products in the next eight to 12 months, said IDC analyst Abner Germanow.

"This is not the first time Cisco has pledged a focus on this market, but this time they are coming to the market with a set of products that are architected and designed specifically for this market segment," Germanow said.

All the new offerings are either available now or will ship by year's end. The Cisco Catalyst Express 500 Series switches will be available this month, priced from US$795 to $2,795. The Catalyst 2960 Series also will ship this month, at prices ranging from $1,295 to $4,495. The new monochrome IP phones are priced at $395 and $495 and will ship this month. The IP Phone 7985G is available now for $3,595.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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