The Return of the Wireless Switch?

Well, not exactly, but recent announcements from Aerohive, Cisco, and HP point the way to unified wired and wireless networking extending beyond management alone - creating new products that far surpass the original vision of the “wireless switch” that got the enterprise Wi-Fi world rolling.

I've been writing about unified networking, the integration of wired and wireless LANs, for perhaps a decade now. The need and the benefits here are obvious: planning, operating, and managing two separate networks in any given location makes absolutely no sense, and the traditional redundancy involved in management console functions, databases, and other elements adds cost but no value. So, then, why not unify at least the management of these two domains under a single pane of glass, and, while we're at it, consider other possibilities for unification as well?

This is exactly what we see in recent announcements from Aerohive, Cisco, and HP. Aerohive announced their SR-Series switches, based on HiveOS and managed by the same HiveManager that handles their APs. The company also has a line of branch routers. Cisco rolled out their new 3850 Unified Access Switch and 5760 Unified Access WLAN Controller, both of which have WLAN controller functionality built in, and both representative of Cisco's new marketing thrust on unified networking. HP also has a broad range of products unified under the Intelligent Management Center (IMC) console umbrella. The company recently announced the 830 Unified Wired-WLAN Switch Series, as well as a Unified Wired-WLAN Module for their larger 10500 and 7500 switches. A pattern is thus clearly emerging: wire and wireless unifying not just at the management console, but down into switches that may also host controllers. This makes sense in more ways than one; after all, PoE switches are required to interconnect all those APs. So why, then, not?

I remember over a decade ago when Gary Singh of Symbol technologies stopped by with the very first wireless switch, a revolution in WLAN systems architecture that gave rise to almost all of today's industry leaders. The idea then was to move common WLAN functions into a wireless Ethernet/PoE switch, and make APs as light and thin as possible. Of course, with Wi-Fi chipset VLSI working in exactly the opposite direction, the thin AP has by and large gone by the wayside, and the argument shifted to what elements of the control plane should be located where - distributed among APs, in a dedicated controller appliance, in controller software running on a server, in a dedicated virtual machine, as a service in the cloud, and now surging in controller functionality integrated into Ethernet switches. The arguments over which is best and under what circumstances will continue. But the unification of function is obvious and unified networking is clearly growing in influence and importance.

Unified networking has taken a very long time to reach this point, and, to be sure, we are not 100% there yet. But as refresh cycles progress with the acceleration of the 802.11ac era, I expect that unified networking will become the norm across LANs both large and small. Look for more announcements relating to this very important trend this year.

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