Thinking of upgrading to Cisco NCS?

Cisco recently released Cisco Prime Network Control System (NCS), an update to their Wireless Control System (WCS) NMS. This update brings with it Ciscos first attempt at integrating wireless with wired management as well as network client visibility with ISE. You’re going to want to carefully consider upgrading – since many of the new features may not be applicable to all users. Among the most highlighted features are pseudo-switch management, unified client tracking with ISE/MSE, streamlined UI, and dynamic RF heatmaps (using AP to AP RSSI values). Aside from these, NCS is basically a glorified UI laid onto of WCS. Those of you familiar with the current pain of WCS profiles, templates, and the lovely flash/java map editor will be relieved to know that all of this still exists as it is in WCS 7. Aside from the glossy front end, if you’re not using Cisco switches, ISE/MSE, or some of the refreshed reports, you’re basically getting the benefit of dynamic RF heatmaps. If you’re considering migrating from an existing WCS installation to a shiny new NCS installation, there are a few potential pitfalls that you should be aware of.

Virtualization: If you’re like many WCS users, you’re probably running WCS in a virtual 2003 or RedHat Linux server. NCS comes as an all-in-one package .OVF to load into your VMWare infrastructure. Those of you familiar with Virtual Appliances will know that this particular distribution method is intended to make distribution of Virtual Appliances easier – including all of the settings you’re going to need to setup the VM. This includes CPU allocation, RAM allocation and Hard Drive space. This is a deviation from the way you may be used to. Instead of asking your Data Center team (if you have one) to carve out a 2k3 or RedHat server, and give you remote access into it for you to complete the WCS install, you now have to give them the OVF file and ask them to run through the initial setup. To make things interesting, there are three different OVFs to choose from: small, medium and large.

Small: 2 CPUs at 2.93GHz or better, 8G of RAM, 200G Hard Disk

  • 3000 Lightweight Access Points
  • 1000 Standalone Access Points
  • 1000 Switches
  • 240 Wireless LAN Controllers

Medium: 4 CPUs at 2.93GHz or better, 12G of RAM, 300G Hard Disk

  • 7500 Lightweight Access Points
  • 2500 Standalone Access Points
  • 2500 Switches
  • 600 Wireless LAN Controllers

Large: 8 CPUs at 2.93GHz or better, 16G of RAM, 400G Hard Disk

  • 15000 Lightweight Access Points
  • 5000 Standalone Access Points
  • 5000 Switches
  • 1200 Wireless LAN Controllers

The most significant challenge you’re going to have here is that you have to select the correct sizing prior to doing your installation since there is no way to migrate from one size to another post-installation aside from backing up and reinstalling your databases.

Licensing: If you’re an upgrade customer, there is a fee you’re going to have to pay for the ability to upgrade to NCS. Once you’ve gotten upgrade fee taken care of, you migrate your existing WCS licenses to NCS. The rub here is that NCS licensing is based on the UDI of the VM as opposed to the hostname of the VM as it was in WCS. This is an install-time generated value and will be different for every VM instance. This means that if you size your VM incorrectly (as described above) and you re-install it, you’ll have to do the licensing dance to get your install up and running again. There will be a limit to the number of times you can re-issue a license so this only stresses the importance of getting your sizing done correctly upfront.

Clients: NCS does not support Internet Explorer without the addition of another plug in. We’ve been utilizing IE for managing WCS along with the Flash plug-in for years now so the addition of the Google Chrome plugin to get IE to work correctly may seem like minimally troublesome, there are numerous corporate, educational, and government users with some pretty restrictive software requirements on their PCs. If you do not have access to a PC with either the supported Firefox or IE/Chrome plugin combo, you will not be able to utilize NCS.

Switch management config: In order to ‘manage’ your switches, you’ll need to have SNMP credentials defined on all of your existing gear before you add them. Shouldn’t be a huge problem if you’ve been diligent about your deployments or if you’ve been using another NMS to do your configurations. As of now, the switch management is visibility only to the hardware and clients if you’re using an MSE. If you’re using an MSE to track wired clients, you’ll also need to enable NMSP on your switches then sync them to your MSE. While this may seem like minimal effort, this does require a fairly current version of IOS and the command:
nmsp enable
if you’re adding this along with all of your relevant Civic information data bits, this could be significant effort especially if you have a significant number of switches.

Evaluation licenses: Be very cautious about using evaluation licenses to get your NCS install up and running. When you first log into NCS, if you don’t have a valid NCS license, you cannot do anything prior to adding a valid licenses. If, during your evaluation of NCS, you have another infrastructure component running an evaluation or time expiring license, you must be cautious of your NCS license expiring at the same time as your other evaluation licenses. This will throw you into an endless loop of NCS redirecting you to the NCS license page then redirecting you back to your feature license expiring.

In all, NCS is a welcome refresh to the WCS product line, and a reasonable first stab at unifying the UI across several product lines (hence the Prime name) so go grab yourself an evaluation license from here and see it for yourself!