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Cisco goes all in on WiFi 6

News Analysis
Apr 29, 20194 mins

Cisco rolls out Catalyst and Meraki WiFi 6-based access points, Catalyst 9000 switch

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Cisco has taken the wraps off a family of WiFi 6 access points, roaming technology and developer-community support all to make wireless a solid enterprise equal with the wired world.

“Best-effort’ wireless for enterprise customers doesn’t cut it any more. There’s been a change in customer expectations that there will be an uninterrupted unplugged experience,” said Scott Harrell, senior vice president and general manager of enterprise networking at Cisco. It is now a wireless-first world.

Bringing a wireless-first enterprise world together is one of the drivers behind a new family of WiFi 6-based access points (AP) for Cisco’s Catalyst and Meraki portfolios.  WiFi 6 (802.11ax) is designed for high-density public or private environments. But it also will be beneficial in internet of things (IoT) deployments, and in offices that use bandwidth-hogging applications like videoconferencing.

The Cisco Catalyst 9100 family and Meraki MR 45/55 WiFi-6 access points are built on Cisco silicon and communicate via pre-802.1ax protocols. The silicon in these access points now acts a rich sensor providing IT with insights about what is going on the wireless network in real-time, and that enables faster reactions to problems and security concerns, Harrell said.

Aside from WiFi 6, the boxes include support for visibility and communications with Zigbee, BLE and Thread protocols. The Catalyst APs support uplink speeds of 2.5 Gbps, in addition to 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps. All speeds are supported on Category 5e cabling for an industry first, as well as 10GBASE-T (IEEE 802.3bz) cabling, Cisco said.

Wireless traffic aggregates to wired networks so and the wired network must also evolve. Technology like multi-gigabit Ethernet must be driven into the access layer, which in turn drives higher bandwidth needs at the aggregation and core layers, Harrell said.

Handling this influx of wireless traffic was part of the reason Cisco also upgraded its iconic Catalyst 6000 with the Catalyst 9600 this week. The 9600 brings with it support for Cat 6000 features such as support for MPLS, virtual switching and IPv6, while adding or bolstering support for wireless netowrks as well as Intent-based networking (IBN) and security segmentation. The 9600 helps fill out the company’s revamped lineup which includes the 9200 family of access switches, the 9500 aggregation switch and 9800 wireless controller.

“WiFi doesn’t exist in a vacuum – how it connects to the enterprise and the data center or the Internet is key and in Cisco’s case that key is now the 9600 which has been built to handle the increased traffic,” said Lee Doyle,  principal analyst with Doyle Research.

The new 9600 ties in with the recently released Catalyst 9800, which features 40Gbps to 100Gbps performance, depending on the model, hot-patching to simplify updates and eliminate update-related downtime, Encrypted Traffic Analytics (ETA), policy-based micro- and macro-segmentation and Trustworthy solutions to detect malware on wired or wireless connected devices, Cisco said.

All Catalyst 9000 family members support other Cisco products such as DNA Center , which controls automation capabilities, assurance setting, fabric provisioning and policy-based segmentation for enterprise wired and wireless networks.

The new APs are pre-standard, but other vendors including Aruba, NetGear and others are also selling pre-standard 802.11ax devices. Cisco getting into the market solidifies the validity of this strategy, said Brandon Butler, a senior research analyst with IDC.

Many experts expect the standard to be ratified late this year. 

“We expect to see volume shipments of WiFi 6 products by early next year and it being the de facto WiFi standard by 2022.”

On top of the APs and 9600 switch, Cisco extended its software development community – DevNet – to offer WiFi 6 learning labs, sandboxes and developer resources.

The Cisco Catalyst and Meraki access platforms are open and programmable all the way down to the chipset level, allowing applications to take advantage of network programmability, Cisco said. 

Cisco also said it had added more vendors to now include Apple, Samsung, Boingo, Presidio and Intel for its ongoing OpenRoaming project.    OpenRoaming, which is in beta promises to let users move seamlessly between wireless networks and LTE without interruption.