Perhaps trying to capitalize on budget pressure, Aruba Networks is positioning its channel partners to sell its new line of Virtual Branch Network products as easily deployed, more affordable alternatives to high-powered branch office networking and VPN solutions from powerhouse competitors such as Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks.
Launched last spring, Aruba's Virtual Branch Network portfolio includes a series of remote access points (RAPs) that end users can plug into a basic Internet connection. The RAPs create a secure tunnel back to a central Aruba controller, giving remote workers both wireless and wired access in a home office setting. Essentially, the Virtual Branch Network (VBN) portfolio allows a company to build a wireless LAN distributed across countless remote employees' homes. The VBN portfolio also includes the Aruba 600 Branch Office Controller Series, which can support up to 256 branch office users with 802.11n connectivity, Power-over-Ethernet, network-attached storage, gigabit Ethernet connectivity, and wide-area network (WAN) connectivity.
"I think it's a pretty cool product," said Zeus Kerravala, vice president at Yankee Research. "Wireless LANs aren't hard to deploy, but they are hard to scale across an enterprise. This creates a distributed wireless model, and I think it simplifies VPN connectivity, so that you just have to have basic Internet service to connect to the network."
Kerravala said the VBN products make a simpler and cheaper alternative to some of the leading branch office networking products on the market, such as Cisco's dominant Integrated Services Router (ISR).
"ISR is a premium-priced product, and it's great if you need all the features," he said. "[VBN] is a good alternative for deployments where ISR would be overkill – where you just want to connect a relatively small office where you just want everyone to be connected to the network. It's just another choice the customer has, especially in this economy."
Choice is something that networking channel partners need to be able to offer to their customers in the current economy. Some companies are looking for cheaper and simpler ways to connect their smaller branch offices and their remote workers, and leading branch office routers and VPN solutions are just too expensive for them.
"I think what's happening with the channel right now, with the economy and the relative slowness in sales – partners respect the ISR and they respect Cisco, and for good reason. But they are looking for what other options are out there," said Ken Presti, principal of Presti Research. "As a vendor comes forward with new products in these areas, I think the channel is more open to considering those options than they have been in the past, especially if they are able to get into those product lines by parlaying training they've gotten from compatible vendors."
Aruba clearly has its channel in mind with the VBN line. The company just released new channel partner documentation, the VBN Validated Reference Design, which gives detailed instructions on how to design, deploy and support branch offices and telecommuters with Aruba's VBN products.
Releasing documentation for the channel so soon after a product has come to the market is relatively new for Aruba, according to James Galiardi, project manager at Aruba partner VECA Communications.
"Having this validated design reference guide is pretty key," he said. "I've been working with Aruba for four years. The earlier stuff that has come out from them, the documentation was always kind of the tailing thing. They've always been more focused on engineering and getting the product out the door. The documentation would come out 12 months later. Having this reference guide come out more or less at the product release is pretty important."
In the first few months the product has been on the market, Galiardi hasn't seen a large volume of sales for the VBN products. He blames the economy for that. But he is seeing "huge amounts" of interest from the people he shows it to.
He said he's got some leads from customers in the education market, both in higher education and K-12. Universities are interested in equipping students with the RAP devices so that students can access the university network easily when they are off-campus. The K-12 customers are looking for ways to connect teachers and staff to the network from home, since so many educators work after hours grading papers and preparing lesson plans.
Selling the VBN products as a separate solution has been a challenge so far, Galiardi said. The few units that his company has moved in the early going were bought by customers that were deploying a larger Aruba wireless LAN solution.
"It's really simpler in a lot of ways than selling and installing a wireless LAN, because the product is so streamlined," he said. "One client who is demoing it now said it's as simple as taking an existing controller configuration and mirroring it on the VBN controller."
Kerravala said the VBN product will allow partners to offer their customers another choice, which is "especially important in this economy, where you might have people balk at an ISR because of the price of it." But he warned partners to carefully assess the future needs of their customers. He said they need to ask questions about the future of certain branch offices. One of the Aruba 600 Branch Office Controllers might serve the branch's needs today, but what about two years from now when the customers realize that they need WAN optimization at the branch or a high-end IP PBX?
"Then you'd have to drop in an ISR alongside the VBN products," Kerravala said. "So the customer really has to be sure this is something they will want to use for more than a couple of years."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor