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FEATURE

Cisco Lowers the Barriers to the 'Borderless' Branch Office

New generation of Cisco Integrated Services Routers bringing video and "on-demand" computing to branch offices

October 20, 2009

Today, Cisco Systems announced another major step in its quest to create "borderless" networks that allow organizations and individuals to communicate anytime, anywhere and in any way they wish.

With the public launch of the second generation of the Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR G2), the company is making it far easier and more affordable for businesses to bring the benefits of video networking, on-demand computing and Web 2.0 technologies to branch offices, retail stores and other remote sites.

When Cisco introduced the original Integrated Services Router in 2004, it clearly hit on a pent-up need to help better connect branch offices to company headquarters. The first generation ISRs became one of the fastest-selling networking products ever created, reaching 2 million units shipped in two years. Now more than 7 million units are in use worldwide.

The ISR - perhaps more than any other Cisco product - reflects the breadth and depth of the company's networking expertise. In the first generation, Cisco combined the best of its routing, security, voice and other capabilities into one device to greatly simplify branch office operations. Now Cisco is writing a new chapter in that tradition.

News@Cisco spoke with Marie Hattar, Cisco's vice president of network systems, about how the company's new generation of Integrated Services Routers will help bring down the barriers to branch office operations.

What is the borderless networks concept?

Marie Hattar: "Borderless networks" is Cisco's architectural approach for addressing the changes in how we work and live. Organizations, employees and customers increasingly want to work from anywhere, using any device while accessing new Web 2.0 applications out in the "cloud" of the Internet. This new model demands a different approach to building business networks - one that allows organizations and individuals to blur the borders between location, device and applications.

What key networking challenges does Cisco's new ISR G2s address?

Marie Hattar: Branch offices have become increasingly crucial to many businesses. Consolidation in industries such as banking and retail has led to corporations running hundreds and even thousands of branch offices or retail stores. Also, other trends such as globalization, telecommuting and virtual workforces are placing even more importance on the ability of organizations to seamlessly manage all kinds of widely scattered employees and operations.

Now the majority of a company's employees are often located in branch or remote offices. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of all employees work outside of an organization's headquarters. And according to Nemertes Research, the average annual growth of branch offices was greater than 9 percent between 2004 and 2008. Most importantly, these locations are typically where the majority of customer interactions take place, whether it's a sales office, a retail store, or a restaurant. The effectiveness of these operations is often the determining factor in the success of a company.

But branch offices, retail stores and other remote sites have struggled as networking islands, often only receiving the bare necessities of computing and communications support, isolated in many ways from the wealth of data and business resources in their corporate headquarters. However, with the introduction of the first Cisco Integrated Services Router, Cisco helped build a bridge to connect these islands to the mainland of their corporate headquarters, in the process breaking down barriers to business efficiencies, productivity and profits. Now, the ISR G2 is building on that tradition to bring borderless networking to branch offices.

How will this second generation of ISRs help improve how companies run their branch offices?

Marie Hattar: The ISR G2s have been completely redesigned to address the management and performance demands that are now facing branch offices. Most notably, the new ISR G2 family of products introduces unprecedented capabilities for how organizations can use these routers to run video communications and support their business applications. In both regards, these new machines are designed to anticipate the future of networking that Cisco sees on the horizon, as well as addressing current management issues that create unnecessary cost and complexities for organization trying to better tie their remote offices to their businesses.

While Cisco has re-architected this new generation, we have also designed them to be compatible with the majority of modules from the first generation, eliminating the need for customers to make disruptive and expensive upgrades. With such integration between these two generations, customers can easily migrate to the new capabilities of the ISR G2s as their business needs dictate.

How will the new generation ISRs help support all the ways businesses can benefit from video networking?

Marie Hattar: You certainly don't have to be a networking vendor to see the future of video. The Internet is exploding with video usage. At the branch office, retail stores and other remote sites, video is driving new waves of productivity while dramatically enhancing customer experiences.

However, video is tremendously more demanding than voice communications, both in terms of raw bandwidth requirements and the sophistication required by the network to manage that video traffic. But as we did for voice communications on the original ISRs, Cisco has tailored this second generation for video. For similar prices as the first-generation ISRs, the ISR G2s offer five times the bandwidth and processing speeds. But beyond such raw muscle power, Cisco has harnessed our extensive experience in video networking to bring to the ISRs the necessary intelligence to handle the myriad details required to manage this most demanding type of network traffic.

A high-definition image for a life-sized Cisco TelePresence screen, for example, requires much different support than video for an Internet webcast, but the new ISRs have the sophistication to differentiate between these various types of video signals and provide the appropriate support from the network. Thanks to our work on video networks for every type of organization, from the world's largest telecommunications companies and major corporations to small businesses and mobile phone providers, Cisco has an expertise in IP-based video communications unmatched by any other networking vendor.

How will the Cisco ISR G2s improve the way organizations can support the computing needs of their branch offices?

Marie Hattar: The ISR G2s decouple the software for running a particular task from the hardware that carries out those tasks. This is managed through the ISR G2s "Services Ready Engine." This new technology brings radical new flexibility to how organizations can use branch office routers to support their computing and communications needs. The basic implications are that the ISR G2s will be incredibly adaptable to the particular needs of a business. Not only will this design make it far easier and more affordable for organizations to add new services options from Cisco, this approach opens up the ISRs to other software developers to create specialized services. Our recent AXP developer contest illustrates just some of the possibilities of this new approach to router design.

And by decoupling hardware from software, adding or modifying various services will be much more affordable. Organizations won't be locked into the hardware modules they buy. For example, if they want to add a new service to improve the performance of their applications, they will be able to simply update the software running on the ISR G2s rather than buying a whole new piece of hardware to install in the box. This will greatly reduce operational costs for organizations by eliminating "truck rolls" and additional hardware purchases while giving organizations the flexibility to add, change or modify services as their branch office computing and communications needs evolve, especially as many businesses migrate towards cloud computing or on-demand computing services.

How does the new generation of ISRs help organizations address the unique operational challenges of branch offices?

Marie Hattar: With branch offices, it's all a numbers game. Any inefficiencies or additional expenses create a cascade of costs multiplied by the number of remote sites. As I mentioned earlier, for larger companies these branch offices often number in the hundreds or thousands. While the original ISR won over customers with its rock-solid dependability - letting companies "set them and forget them," the new ISRs offer several more ways companies can reduce the costs of running their branch office networks.

First, we've greatly simplified how organizations can manage the software running these routers. With so many possible routers in use, it is challenging for companies to manage all these devices scattered across many sites. But the ISR G2s can easily add services on-demand and provide tools that make it much easier to keep track of the status of each router, regardless of location. New features and capabilities can be easily turned on without site visits or downloads of software.

Another challenge for branch offices has been in striking a balance between centralizing control of applications and data while ensuring branch operations have quick, easy and dependable access to those applications. In a worst-case scenario, a branch office could lose its networking connection because a construction crew accidentally cuts the fiber optic line carrying its signal. Cisco has designed the ISR G2 routers so that they can maintain critical services locally even if they lose their connection to the corporate data center.

The ISR G2s also offer other features to help speed access to centralized applications and data so that branch office systems provide the same performance as those in a company's headquarters. Since all of these components are tightly integrated into the routers, they are far easier and more cost-effective to manage than if they ran on separate server-based devices requiring additional hardware and expertise.

Finally, we've taken additional steps to help companies reduce expenses through energy waste. The new generation ISRs fully support EnergyWise, our management system that allows organizations to automatically control the power consumption of their network devices. For example, a company can set a policy to automatically put ISRs into low-power mode overnight or turn off devices such as IP phones when the branch offices are closed. As added energy savings, the integrated modules typically use one-fifth the power of stand-alone devices performing the same tasks. With the multiplier effect of branches, such incremental energy reduction steps can add up to big savings for companies managing hundreds or thousands of remote sites.

Besides breaking down barriers between a company's branch offices and its headquarters, how else is Cisco helping create borderless organizations?

Marie Hattar: Helping create borderless organizations is really the essence of Cisco's mission as a company. Internet-based communications technologies have revolutionized how and where companies can operate. These technologies are major catalysts for globalization, telecommuting, virtual offices, crowd sourcing, just-in-time inventory and a whole host of other business trends that simply would not be possible without modern IP-based networks.

Cisco is developing technologies to break down almost every type of barrier that stands in the way of creating borderless organizations. During the past few years, Cisco has rolled out products and technologies for TelePresence video meetings, WebEx conferencing, unified communications, virtual offices, mobile communications, and virtualized data centers for on-demand computing, just to name a few of our innovations. The new ISRs are just one more step in this effort. It's what we do.

 
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