Cisco Keeps Working To Make Its Case To Small Businesses - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
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11/30/2009
07:33 PM
Fredric Paul
Fredric Paul
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Cisco Keeps Working To Make Its Case To Small Businesses

One year after forming its Small Business Technology group, Cisco is still trying to erase perceptions that the networking giant cares only for large enterprises. New products and services debuting today are intended to help make the case -- to channel partners as well as small businesses themselves.

It's been just about a year since Cisco announced a $100 million investment in creating a new Small Business Technology Group last November, and is "celebrating" with a clutch of new products and services. More than just new products, though, the 1-year anniversary of Cisco Small Business is about a new way of doing business. "People know the Cisco brand," says Rick Moran, vice president of Cisco's SMB Solutions Marketing, "they just don't think of us for small business."

Cisco is counting on the power of that brand as it phases out the Linksys brand (an SMB-oriented company it bought back in 2003) in favor of dubbing its small business products with the Cisco Small Business and Cisco Small Business Pro (for channel products) monikers.

At the same time, Cisco is also trying to come up with products and services that demonstrate its commitment to smaller companies. Cisco now boasts more than 600 products (including former Linksys products) sold through more than 12,000 channel partners. "Availability really does matter," says Moran. To further extend the brand, the company has also set up a Cisco Small Business YouTube Channel, and is on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. The company is even broadcasting drivetime radio ads in 8 U.S. markets. "Small businesses like radio," Moran says.

The Small Business unit divides its products into three categories: Connect (including routers and such), Security (including spam and virus blockers and physical security), and Communicate (including telephones, telephone systems and WebEx). The goal for all of them, Moran says, is to "balance simplicity vs. flexibility. Not less features, but less need for configuration" and other complex tasks. Its Cisco Configuration Assistant (CCA), for example is designed to let users perform all configuration tasks via a Web interface.

What else does Cisco need to do?

According to Steve Hilton, now doing Enterprise Research at Analysys Mason, "They’ll need to continue localization of services and support, particular channel initiatives, and product/language support. In addition, Cisco should consider matching the warranty of HP (limited lifetime) for most of its solutions, at least those solutions in the Small Business Pro series. While expensive, we think Cisco needs to keep up the general market awareness building. The name Cisco needs to be meaningful for small businesses which requires continued presence in media."

Cisco's New Small Business Products
On the product side, the networking vendor is marking the occasion with a new AP541N wireless access point, and upgrades to the SPA 525G IP Phone, and SA 500 Security Appliance.

Cisco AP541N wireless access point

As the last letter of the name suggests, the AP541N wireless access point adds dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi to the mix, along with self-discovery and the ability to create centrally managed, overlapping clusters that share a single SSID to let users roam throughout a multi-access point installation. The $499 device is especially well suited for use with Wi-Fi phones, says Moran.

The new version of the SPA 525G IP Phone gets upgraded support for video monitoring -- displayed on the phone's multimedia screen with audio -- using the CCA. New VPN support, Moran says, lets users install the $400 device in remote or home offices to extend that functionality.

And the SA 500 Security Appliance adds a new Intrusion Detection System designed to help block Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Using Trend Micro software on the backend, it employs Cisco ProtectLink Gateway to block attacks while Cisco ProtectLink Endpoint extends anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-phishing protection to network endpoints (desktop and laptop computers). The new SA 500 costs $550, and owners of existing models can upgrade their software to add the new features for $150.

Cisco is also rolling out the SRP 500 Series Services Ready Platforms, designed to help service providers configure and manage communications for small companies with fewer than 20 users on SIP/IP phones with wireless connections. The $250 on-premises box is part of a hosted systems solution and offers a network-based call center.

The Smart Business Communications System 2.0, meanwhile, offers Unified Communications for companies with fewer than 100 users employing UC 540 and 560 phones. At $164 per user, Moran says, the pay-per-user pricing model lets companies add capacity only when needed. Offering "everything Cisco in one box," it's 30% cheaper than the equivalent service last year.

New Cisco Services For Partners
Continuing the theme of making new services available to the resellers who actually sell to small businesses, the new Cisco Small Business Pro Rapid Replacement Service offers a 4-hour replacement-part guarantee for $999 per site for 3 years. (Of course, partners can choose to charge their customers whatever they like.)

Moran says that many channel partners keep spare parts on hand for simple things like phones and switches, but might not be able to keep more expensive products in stock at all times. The new service avoids delays when those products need repair or replacement. It also includes 24/7 phone support for partners -- which can then use that information to support their small business customers.

In addition, Moran says, Cisco is now offering free Partner Design Support -- phone or online chat access to Cisco engineers to more quickly design solutions for small businesses, before the sale is final.

Oh, and Cisco is also using its financial muscle to support resellers and offer financing, including 0% offers on purchases over $5,000. (Note that arch-rival HP has slashed its 0% financing minimum to just $1,500 -- see How HP Plans To Rule The SMB World.)

Again, small business customers typically won't see these new services directly. What they may see is that the IT resellers and consultants they work with may be more likely to offer up Cisco-based solutions. That's definitely what Cisco is hoping, anyway.


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