Cisco ups the ante in SMB game

The vendor unveils a suite of voice/data products, which it says will be easier for SMBs to manage. But an analyst warns the new offerings could also spell single-point-of-failure.

SINGAPORE--Cisco Systems this week stepped up efforts to woo small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), touting ease-of-use in its latest integrated family of networking products tailored for small companies with 20 to 250 employees.

The Cisco Business Communication Solution comprises hardware such as the new Power over Ethernet-enabled (PoE) Cisco Catalyst Express 500 switch, the Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR) and IP phones, as well as communications software including the CallManager Express Call Processing, the Cisco Unity Express Voice Mail and Auto Attendant, and the InformaCast IP Phone Application.

Cisco joins an array of players including its rivals, which are also eyeing the SMB market and have products that specifically target these customers. 3Com already has an NBX V3000 Platform aimed at companies with 2 to 200 users, and an NBX 100 Platform for organizations with 20 to 100 users. Avaya also has a S8300 Media Server targeted at organizations with 8 to 450 users.

A spokesperson for NEC told ZDNet Asia the company will be launching in 2006, a similar offering targeted at SMBs in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cisco is bundling a Catalyst 500 switch with 10 units of its 7912 IP phones at a promotional price of S$5,070 (US$2,980), and is hoping that SMBs here will bite the bait. The offer is available until the end of October, though at press time, officials were not able to finalize the post-offer recommended retail price.

The new products are available through Cisco's voice-certified resellers. The ISR is available separately from Cisco partners.

The latest suite of products focuses on ease-of-use, in view of the fact that SMBs often do not have dedicated IT networking personnel on-hand to set up and oversee the network, said Simon Lim, business development manager at Cisco's IP Communications division.

IDC Asia-Pacific's vice president of communications, verticals and peripherals research, Sandra Ng, agreed that "the more integrated the solution is, the easier it is for SMBs as they don't usually have extensive IT support (in the organization)."

However, she cautioned that although having an integrated device facilitates ease-of-use, "if one feature is down, the whole box could fail".

A breeze to manage?
During a media briefing yesterday, the vendor demonstrated how the Cisco Network Assistant 3.0 application in the Catalyst Express 500 allows less-technically adept administrators to configure network settings on-the-fly using wizards. The company also showcased how built-in "smart" ports allow users to define the role of the equipment that are to be attached to the switch.

In addition, Lim said, IT administrators will not need to purchase external power jacks for the wireless access points, PCs and IP phones because "power comes from the switch (product) itself".

Besides offering converged data and voice application, the Cisco CallManager Express software in the ISR has been updated with an embedded Meet Me conferencing tool for companies with 20 to 96 users. The ISR comes with integrated firewall, VPN (virtual private network), and an intrusion detection system.

According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, the Asia-Pacific IP telephony market is likely to have a compound annual growth rate of 20.2 percent from 2004 till 2011. IP telephony sales in the region clocked nearly US$500 million last year, and the market is expected to cross the US$1 billion mark by 2008.

The report also stated that "IP has begun penetrating the SMB segment as KTS (key telephone system) companies launch IP KTS to address the needs of the lower-end, price-sensitive market". Local analysts could not provide specific figures for the Asia-Pacific SMB IP telephony market.