"All of these technologies exist, but they're all discrete, and they can't talk to each other," said Maribel Lopez, CEO of Lopez Research. "You build an API and they can."
Building an open API is just what Cisco has done by adding a new appliance, the Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine (MSE), into the network. It collects and coordinates controller and network data, making it available to outside applications and third-party developers.
At first, that information comes from Wi-Fi equipment, but the range is set to expand in the future to RFID, LTE, and even wired connections, meaning that more data will be available more consistently across the network.
"We're adding a new network element to our network architecture," said Ben Gibson, Cisco's senior director of mobility solutions. "A key message here is that wireless networking is not just about connectivity but about the services that run over the network."
One of the most important services addressed is communications, which could benefit greatly from the centralized management.
UC vendors have done creative work previously to help track down and decipher where users are and how they could best be reached, but many of these solutions are proprietary and narrowly focused. With Cisco's Motion platform, however, there is one common data set that can be accessed, with several key software additions that help maintain a consistent communications environment.
The MSE will come with wireless asset tracking, adaptive intrusion protection, user management and seamless handoff tools, all of which can be brought to bear against tricky communications problems.
For example, a doctor on call is on the fifth floor of a hospital, in range of his corporate Wi-Fi but with no cellular reception. The MSE's location-based services detect that his dual-mode phone is in an operating room and notify callers that he is available to be paged but not to talk.
Later, when the MSE detects that his phone has left the hospital, calls are routed over the cellular network, with his presence information universally updated.
Motion's success will depend on tight third-party integration, and to that end Cisco announced several Day 1 partners that are already modifying their products to take advantage of the new architecture. Nokia has announced that it is designing products that will use MSE to hand off seamlessly between cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
Another early partner is fixed-mobile convergence (FMC)-focused Agito, which will integrate intelligence gleaned from the MSE – such as access point performance and location information -- to better decide when and when not to hand off calls between a cellular and Wi-Fi network.
"The MSE provides a trigger directly to our [phone] clients," said Pejman Roshan, vice president of marketing for Agito. "It gives a combined metric, what is equivalent to a link-up/link-down status."
Without MSE, Roshan said, an Agito client had no way of seeing whether a wireless access point was dealing with too much traffic or was encountering other problems. The MSE can send that contextual information to clients so they can determine whether it is best to use a cellular network or the enterprise wireless LAN.
"I think [the MSE] will do quite well," Roshan said. "Our solution works really well, but more information is always welcome."
Gibson said Cisco will continue to expand the capabilities and scope of the MSE, letting third parties discover new ways to tap into the information it gathers to improve the communications experience, as well as giving third-party developers the ability to add new software modules to the device itself.
Lopez said Cisco's dominance in the networking world puts it in a good position to be the company tying all the components together, particularly as it tries to shift strategy away from being a pure pipe provider to one where its software and systems are seen as vitally important.
"It's the beginning of their overarching mobility strategy," Lopez said, adding that Cisco was raising awareness now to help guide enterprise purchasing cycles three to five years down the road. "This is the announcement where they say, 'This is how we're going to unify this, and this is what we're going to do for you.' "