Cisco Extends Industrial Wireless Portfolio Deeper into the OT Network, But Success Hinges on Delivering on the IT/OT Convergence

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By Andrew Spivey | 1Q 2023 | IN-6852

Cisco has advanced its OT networking capabilities with the launch of new industrial wireless hardware and services this February but achieving the IT/OT convergence is a prerequisite for the realization of the company’s OT ambitions.

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Industrial WLAN and the IT/OT Convergence in the Spotlight at Cisco Live EMEA 2023


At Cisco Live 2023, held in Amsterdam in early February, Cisco announced a range of new hardware and services for Operational Technology (OT) environments. These span from the new industrial Wireless LAN (WLAN) Cisco Catalyst IW9165 Series for mobile mission critical applications to the enhanced visibility and security software which further drives the convergence between IT and OT. While neither of these releases are revolutionary, they do represent a significant expansion of Cisco’s OT capabilities and reveal the company’s intentions to extend its industrial networking portfolio further into the OT network. Cisco’s ability to execute this strategy now rests on the extent to which it can engineer the IT/OT Convergence.

Cisco's Next Generation Industrial Wireless Portfolio Boosted with New Hardware and Services


The Cisco Catalyst IW9165 Series unveiled at this year’s Cisco Live consists of two industrial wireless hardware solutions, a client device and an Access Point (AP), both of which are scheduled to launch in Q2 2023. Each model supports a maximum throughput of 2.5 Gbps and are equipped with dual 5 GHz 2x2 Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) radios. One of the radios can be configured to the 6 GHz band, alongside a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver so that the equipment can be located for Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC), essential for standard power 6 GHz operation. The client device of the pair, the Catalyst IW9165E, comes with a compact form factor, low power consumption, IP20 ruggedization, and DIN rail mount capabilities; all attributes which make it well suited to provide wireless connectivity for mobile mission critical applications such as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). To facilitate the integration of the IW9165E into the network it supports Universal WGB (uWGB), allowing for connections to third-party Access Point (AP) infrastructure and Workgroup Bridge (WGB) that can provide wireless connectivity to a lightweight AP on behalf of wired clients that are connected via ethernet behind the WGB AP. The IW9165E is Cisco’s first purpose-built wireless client for industrial use cases, and the release signals the company’s intentions to provide hardware serving deeper inside the OT network.

The IW9165E is complimented by the IW9165D AP, which has been designed to provide the fixed wireless backhaul for industrial mobility networks (i.e., those leveraging wireless clients like the IW9165E), either as point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, or mesh. This IP67 AP has a built-in directional antenna for backhaul, with external antenna ports for the addition of antennas for mobile use cases if required. As with all products in Cisco’s industrial wireless AP portfolio, the IW9165D supports both 802.11 based connectivity and Cisco’s proprietary Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul (URWB). The IW9165D is positioned as a mid-tier, easy to deploy industrial AP, a release that comes six months after the launch of Cisco’s premier outdoor and industrial AP the IW9167E, which supports 4x4 MIMO tri-radio (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 5/6 GHz). The lower specs of the IW9165D not only help achieve a lower cost, but also allow for a reduced size and weight, with the approximately 1 kg weight of the IW9165D comparing to the over 4 kg weight of the IW9167E. This allows for more versatile deployments and reduces energy demand, extremely valuable for OT environments where power consumption is a key factor. The IW9165D also has a higher level of vibration tolerance, which is useful for OT environments in which AGVs and AMRs may be operating, such as mines.

Another core theme at Cisco Live EMEA 2023 was the IT/OT convergence, which the company has been driving in recent years with products including the Cisco Cyber Vision, which extends IT security to the OT domain, and the Cisco Internet of Things (IoT) Operations Dashboard (OD) for the remote management of Industrial IoT (IIoT), both of which were introduced in 2020. The former, Cisco Cyber Vision, monitors all industrial assets and application flows to automatically identify vulnerabilities and shares inventories with Cisco’s enterprise Extended Detection and Response (XDR) platform SecureX, enabling the combining of IT and OT asset inventories and the simplification of threat investigations and remediation workflows. The latter, Cisco IoT OD (then referred to as the ‘Cisco Edge Device Manager’), is a cloud-based dashboard for the remote deployment, management and troubleshooting of industrial IIoT networks. The Secure Equipment Access (SEA) agent on the Cisco IoT OD was used to remotely manage access and interact with network devices and connected clients. At Cisco Live EMEA 2023 the company announced that the Cisco Cyber Vision and the Cisco IoT OD discussed above would be integrated together, unlocking full visibility between IT and OT, and enabling a unified security posture across the entire network. Alongside this, Cisco also expanded the SEA agent for the Cisco IoT OD with Secure Equipment Access Plus, which allows the platform to access any equipment on the network with IP connectivity. This simplifies remote access by enabling the OT team to run native applications on their workstations.

Cisco's Game Plan for OT


The introduction of the Cisco Catalyst IW9165 series reflects Cisco’s determination to extend its industrial networking portfolio further into the OT network. Up until now, Cisco’s Industrial WLAN solutions have been primarily targeted towards providing network access connectivity, with equipment including the heavy duty 802.11az IW9167E AP mentioned above, the 802.11ac Wave 2 IW6300 series optimized for hazardous locations, and the 802.11ac Wave 2 Cisco 6300 Series Embedded Services Access Points (ESW6300), which were engineered to integrate wireless mesh networking into heavy industry and smart city assets. The IW9165E client on the other hand has been specifically engineered for installation onto AGVs and AMRs, with a lightweight, compact, and low-power design for this purpose. The IW9165D AP has been built to work in tandem with its client partner with features such as easy installation, support for external antennas, and high vibration tolerance. Together they are well positioned to satisfy the needs of mid-sized warehousing, logistics or manufacturing facilities with AGV or AMR operations.

The expansion of the Cisco Industrial Wireless portfolio deeper into the OT network will likely continue, with not only additional client devices and APs, but also the investment into the development of more proprietary features to support functionality in challenging OT environments, much like Siemens has done with its array of advanced iFeatures. This will help Cisco raise its OT proposition to customers, but there remains the fact that Cisco has both less experience and market presence in OT than OT-focused companies such as the above-mentioned Siemens. Thus, Cisco has also become a key driver of the IT/OT convergence in part because the unifying of the two domains can enable them to leverage their strong lead in enterprise by extending business with its enterprise customers into their OT networks.

To this end, Cisco has been investing heavily into solving the challenges posed by the convergence, such as the visibility of network assets, scalability, and security. This strategy has included several important acquisitions and partnerships. For example, the advanced threat assessment and prioritization of remediation features of Cyber Vision were acquired through its purchase of security risk-management firm Kenna in 2021, and in 2022 the company entered into a partnership with cybersecurity firm Radiflow for its OT security expertise. The Cyber Vision and IoT OD announcements made at Cisco Live 2023 are significant in that they bring further advancements to visibility and security, but there is still work to be done here. Notably, the two connectivity technologies supported by all Cisco Industrial Wireless APs, 802.11 and their proprietary URWB require separate management platforms (Cisco DNA Center and the Cisco IoT OD respectively), which does impair visibility and scalability. Interoperability has remained a persistent issue for Cisco, as for over a decade since the acquisition of Meraki in 2012, the Meraki Dashboard network management solution for the cloud-managed Meraki line could not support Cisco Catalyst equipment. A Q4 2022 update brought compatibility with select Cisco Catalyst 9000 series switches, but this is the extent of interoperability for now. Improving interoperability will thus remain key for Cisco to ensure that it can truly deliver many of the benefits of the IT/OT convergence to its customers, namely enhanced visibility and simplified management.



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