Cisco's NCS: Unified Management Arrives

Cisco's been burning up the phone lines around here with a whole slew of new WLAN developments. The most interesting of these, IMHO, anyway, and announced today as part of "Cisco Prime for Enterprise", is the evolution of Cisco's long-standing WCS management system, originally obtained as part of the Airespace acquisition, into something new: NCS, and I'm sure you know what that stands for. I found early releases of WCS, perhaps as should have been expected given the state of WLANs a decade ago, to be limited and function and complex to use. I don't see the fascination with commend-line interfaces; one little typo and you get to do it all over again, perhaps accompanied by lot of frantic work to back out of whatever mess you created via said typo. But the latest version of WCS, is really quite good - very graphical, robust, complete, and easy - and even, dare I say it, inviting - to use. A key feature of NCS is combined wired/wireless management, something Cisco's been talking about for quite some time now, hence the renaming. I've not yet had any hands-on time with NCS, but the descriptions I've seen show that unified networking - the merger of wired and wireless at least at the management layer - is coming along quite nicely at Cisco.

Unified networking is important because the traditional overlay model of separate wired and wireless networks, while certainly functional, simply involves too much overlap, too much cost, and too many opportunities for conflicting policies and/or configurations. It's "the network" after all, and wireless almost always depends upon wire for interconnect and backhaul, to say nothing of the role of wired management in IDS/IPS - another key point of intersection where wireless impacts wire. Along with security and integrity comes a fundamental need to handle the ever-increasing capacity demanded by an ever-growing population of wireless users with equally-demanding applications. A single-pane management console adds convenience, lowers cost (Cisco points out that generalists with the right tools can be just as productive as more-expensive specialists), and just plain makes sense to the point that, again, IMHO, it's the only way to go whenever possible. NCS is certain to be a big hit, if for no other reason than it replaces WCS over time, but also because unified management is going to become, IMHO, a checklist item on RFPs both large and small.

A few other vendors have unified management systems as well, of course, and no one today has everything required in every case. Mixed-vendor has its own set of challenges, and Cisco isn't going in that direction at all for now. But the very broad range of function in NCS - from lifecycle management to support for Cisco's CleanAir interference management solution to detailed information on clients and endpoints to, now, managing a board set of wired-LAN elements - is a good sign that the largest vendor in the WLAN space intends to remain in a leading position with a strategy and the solutions required as (W)LANs continue their march toward both primacy and ubiquity.

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