Power over Ethernet (PoE), a standard the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recently ratified, is a technology that allows electrical power to be delivered over the same copper wire as Ethernet. The feature is particularly useful for devices like Internet Protocol (IP) telephones and wireless-access devices. It can also be used in Ethernet switches and is useful in installations for which there is no access to a power outlet.
After the 802.3af PoE standard was ratified in July 2003, Cisco introduced its first standards-compliant product in September, the new 7970G IP telephone. With Tuesday's announcement, the company has added its Catalyst switch portfolio to the list of products that support the new PoE standard.
"This is a big deal in the sense that the standard implementation is finally available from the 800-pound gorilla in the networking industry," said David Passmore, a networking analyst with Burton Group, a research and consulting company. "I wouldn't say that they are late to the market with a standard implementation, but if they had waited much longer, they would have been."
Cisco has been offering a prestandard version of the technology since 2000 on many of its products, including some of its Ethernet switches, IP telephones and wireless-access devices. The prestandard version of the technology could only be used with 10- and 100-megabit-per-second versions of Ethernet; not with 1-gigabit-per-second Ethernet. The new standard enables Cisco to offer PoE on all its Ethernet gear, including its gigabit Ethernet products.
"It's an important distinction, as more companies start deploying gigabit Ethernet to the desktop," Passmore said.
Other vendors, such as Extreme Networks and Foundry Networks, have already announced switching products that support the new standard. Because support for it required a hardware change, Cisco is not able to retrofit existing gear to make it comply. As a result, only new Cisco products will support the standard. All the existing IP telephones and wireless-access devices will support the prestandard technology.
"We can't go back to the products that are already out in the market and make them compliant," said Steven Shalita, senior management of worldwide product marketing for local-area network switching. "There's no magic that can be done to make this change; it's a hardware issue."
Standards compliance is a big deal for customers. Lots Pook, chief technology officer for Exempla Healthcare, said he would not buy PoE products today that are not standards-based. His company, which owns two hospitals in the Denver metro area, is building a third facility in the same region. The company has been using prestandard PoE gear from Cisco in its two hospitals and plans to use Cisco's standards-based switches in the new hospital.
Pook said that if Cisco did not support the new standard now, he would likely have not chosen it for the new hospital. Not only will the standard enable Pook to deploy new types of Ethernet-enabled gear using PoE, but he said it will also enable him to dual-source his switching purchases.
"We're happy with our relationship with Cisco," he said. "But it's important to have choices, and we get that with standards-based equipment."