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Apple/Cisco Enterprise Partnership Should Focus on Collaboration, Performance & Security

by Andrew Brown | Sep 02, 2015

Apple and Cisco, the respective leaders in mobile devices and enterprise networks, announced a high-level collaborative plan this week to make Apple iPhones and iPads more “corporate friendly” on Cisco-based enterprise networks.

Details and specifics are vague on the partnership, which debuted to an audience of a high-level Cisco sales executive. (Cisco Chairman and ex-CEO John Chambers and Apple CEO Tim Cook delivering the news in person helped fan the speculation flames too). But the partnership’s central message, a so-called “Fast Lane” for iOS-based devices running on Cisco-based networks, implies a promise of tighter technology integration and improved end-user experiences between the two technology firms.

A logical match

An official Cisco/Apple integration effort is a long time coming in lots of ways. Most Apple devices access corporate networks via Cisco Wi-Fi, given Cisco’s dominant installed base and market share in enterprises. It is common practice for BYO iPhone/iPad users to immediately seek out corporate or guest WiFi signals when bringing a mobile device to the office.

In many offices now, iPads are installed for tasks Cisco had previously envisioned for its IP phones, such as booking conference rooms, building access & lobby check in, retrieving basic information, or sending messages or broadcasts. (In the mid-’00s, Cisco and others envisioned an app ecosystem for IP phones, driving a wide range of horizontal and vertical business apps. That concept never took off, but is reflected in the current iOS app ecosystem.)

From a business perspective, an Apple/Cisco partnership could expose Apple to Cisco’s broader enterprise channel ecosystem, and ultimately, IT buyers looking to deploy corporate-liable devices (especially tablets) to employees. The rumored business-centric iPad (expected in an upcoming event in Cupertino) could play into this strategy. Beyond these basic examples of Cisco/Apple interplay, here are three key areas — Collaboration, Security and Performance — we’d like to see Cisco and Apple focus on with their enterprise partnership: 

  • Collaboration: Facetime and iMessage have made video calls, IM and presence dead simple for consumers with iOS devices. Cisco has worked hard over the past decade to establish itself as the leader in enterprise unified communications, with the goal of simplifying once-baffling tasks such as team video call or even conference call setups. But for many employees working in an office with a Cisco IP handset and iPhone (especially if the iPhone runs Cisco’s Jabber client) there’s really no choice as to which device to pick up when receiving a business call. Similarly, many workers swap out a PC with a Webex client for an iPad using the app version of Cisco’s widely-used collaboration platform.

    Beyond this,  basic telephony functions that could use tighter integration include initiating calls on iOS devices for Cisco IP phone, video of telepresence systems, as well as more user-friendly setup of Cisco software on iPhones and iPads.

     More ambitious opportunities to tie together Apple and Cisco technology could come with Cisco’s Spark collaboration and meeting platform Formerly known as Project Squared, and rebranded this year, Spark is Cisco’s effort to corral and “professionalize” consumer collaboration and communication apps such as Skype, Dropbox and even to some extent, FaceTime and iMessage. To these core functions, Spark adds security, management, monitoring, call/message auditing and other business requirements. Tying in or extending this platform into Apple collaboration tools would appease both Apple fan employees and IT organizations looking for more security and control on BYOD devices.   

  • Performance/user experience: Cisco’s expertise is at the network layer, with products that can see mobile app traffic and data, as well as control and prioritize these application traffic flows. This is important, because on business networks without this capability, critical network app traffic could be left to compete for network access and bandwidth with other mobile devices streaming music or video, or downloading an iOS software update. Support for Cisco-specific or Cisco-enhanced QoS and traffic control protocols on Apple devices could fix this issue.

    From a network performance, monitoring and management perspective, Cisco’s position at the network layer has potential to enhance overall end-user experience of mobile enterprise applications. The ability to monitor app traffic flows from data centers to clients is there today for Cisco customers. Many enterprises want deeper visibility, where user experience data from iPads and iPhones can be correlated with technologies such as NetFlow and application traffic analysis in the network. 

  • Security: Greater security for enterprise mobile device users should be a priority of this partnership. At a basic level, Apple and Cisco working more closely together could help smooth glitches in Wi-Fi and security interoperability when new iOS versions are released. More sophisticated integration could come with deeper support for iOS in Cisco’s Network Access Control infrastructure layer, Identity Services Engine, and WLAN Controllers. Some of this integration could create some overlap between Cisco security, identity management, and profile configuration functions and similar features on enterprise mobility management (EMM) platforms.

    Beyond NAC, Cisco’s network visibility is again an opportunity to improve iPhone/iPad user experiences from a security perspective. Tying in iOS devices to services such as Cisco’s cloud-based security and VPN solutions (for threat prevention, monitoring and access control) would go a long way in shoring up areas EMM platforms cannot support; many EMM solutions are not in-line and don’t actively monitor network traffic on devices — only app, data usage, settings and behavior.

Keeping up with Big Blue

IBM and Cisco have been on/off rivals for a generation — from networking to UC, servers and cloud — but are now at a relative peace. However, Apple’s move to partner with IBM on app development for businesses and specific vertical industries clearly put Cisco on noticed. As the enterprise standard computing model shifts from Ethernet-connected Windows PCs to wireless-connected Apple devices, Cisco (likely at the behest of common Cisco/IBM customers) needed to interact with Apple more formally. Businesses deeply invested in IBM data center, application and development platforms needed help getting new mobile endpoints connected to these infrastructure pieces. The same goes for Cisco users, heavily invested in Cisco infrastructure, that want to extend the collaboration, traffic optimization and security capabilities to Cisco-Wi-Fi-connected Apple products. 

From a cynical perspective, this deal could end up as little more than a sales pitch, and a move to goose business technology shipment numbers for each player. Apple has not wowed consumers with recent iPad iterations, and business
tablet sales have cooled significantlyQ1 2015 was a down quarter for the global business tablet market, as shipments in the quarter backslid 7% compared to the same quarter a year ago, and shrank 35% from Q4 2014. Meanwhile, Cisco, while an IT and networking stalwart, never had much of a cool factor in terms of product design, user interface or flair. It would be easy to impress corporate users with cheap and cheerful iOS/Cisco product mashups to help both companies move the revenue needle. However, with so much opportunity and pent up demand for better interoperability between these two firms, we expect bigger things from this tie-up to come. 

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