Wireless vendors target enterprise nets with 802.11n products

Pre-standard offerings to debut from Colubris, Trapeze, others

One of the big surprises at this week's Interop show will be the number of new enterprise wireless LAN products supporting the high-throughput IEEE standard in waiting

A pack of vendors have announced new access points with chipsets that support draft 2 of the IEEE 802.11n specification, which in some configurations can deliver up to 200Mbps of TCP/IP throughput for 802.11n-equipped clients, compared with about 25Mbps for the current generation of WLAN products. These aren’t the first access points to use the multiple input multiple output (MIMO) technology at the heart of 802.11n, but they are the first targeting enterprises, from small to large.

That’s surprising because the conventional wisdom is that enterprise network executives won’t touch non-standard products. “We just decided that we will not deploy pre-standard products,” says a network analyst at a university in the northeast who requested anonymity. “They can’t guarantee the chipsets will be upgradable by software. Until then we’ll sit tight.” One reason for the reluctance: the new 802.11n access points will have gigabit Ethernet ports and the school will have to upgrade nearly all its edge LAN switches.

But others don’t face that kind of widespread network upgrade. And countering the “sit tight” mindset are two points that could persuade some enterprises to move forward on 802.11n before the late 2008 or early 2009 completion date of the IEEE standard.

One is that 802.11n draft 2 seems unlikely to change in any significant way between now and then, according to vendors and some analysts. Contrary to the university network analyst’s fears, these parties say that any minor changes can be dealt by some new firmware code.

Second, the throughput gains, coupled with a two to three times increase in range, are so dramatic that for the first time wireless Ethernet has the potential to at least match the performance users find on wired LANs.

But notably missing from the flurry of 802.11n announcements are the two market leaders, Cisco and Aruba Networks. Neither has publicly announced 802.11n plans, let alone products.

Besides 802.11n, other wireless news at Interop focuses on improving and enhancing the systems software running controllers and access points, and on building in support for emerging applications such as location services, and bridging between voice calls on cellular networks and on WLANs.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) announced last week a group of seven 802.11n products that will form the platform for its 802.11n draft 2 interoperability tests, due to begin in late June at 11 third-party labs around the world. These “test bed” products are a collection of 802.11n reference designs and access points from Atheros, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel, Marvel and Raylink. They will become the first certified products as soon as the tests get underway. A WFA spokeswoman said the tests for access points and client adapters will take “hours and days” rather than weeks. Certified products are expected to be generally available starting in the fall.

The Interop products announcements were clearly timed to build on the WFA’s credibility as a certification authority.

Colubris, Trapeze ready products

Announcing enterprise 802.11n access points, most of which are being demonstrated at Interop this week, are Colubris and Trapeze. Ruckus Wireless is announcing 802.11n access points and controllers designed specifically for small to midsize enterprises.

The capabilities vary considerably. The new Colubris product, Multiservice Access Point-625, has one 802.11n and one 802.11a/b/g radio and a gigabit Ethernet port. The new Ruckus ZoneFlex 2942 has two radios, one 802.11n, and one 802.11b/g, both of which make use of Ruckus’ beam-forming antenna system for greater range and greater resistance to interference, and two 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports. Trapeze is offering the Mobility Point-432, with two radios that can support all four 802.11 flavors -- a, b, g and n -- and has two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Trapeze says its access point will have a total capacity of about 200Mbps TCP/IP throughput on the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands; Colubris says its product will deliver over 100Mbps throughput for its 802.11n radio, with the 802.11b/g radio adding about another 25Mbps. But data rates and throughput depend on the number of MIMO antennas, usually either two or three for each 802.11n radio, and whether the radios are using 20-MHz channels as today’s WLANs do, or the 40-MHz option (adding two of the narrower channels together) that 802.11n allows. These numbers are for the so-called bonded 40-MHz channels.

“I’m bullish on 11n,” says Craig Mathias, a wireless analyst and principal for Farpoint Group. The key is network capacity, rather than raw throughput, he says. On an 802.11n network, a user’s bits zip through the air faster, freeing up the channel for someone else’s bits. In addition, he says, 802.11n will make WLAN connections more reliable because of its longer range (two to three times greater than current WLANs): at any given distance from the access point, the probability of a packet getting through is greater.

Atheros is announcing the next members of its draft 2 802.11n radio chipsets, including a product aimed at USB form factors, due out in early 2008. This will let notebook users plug in an 802.11n adapter and connect to any 802.11n access point.

Other vendors are using Interop to enhance their basic controller and access point software. Aruba has new software for its end-user oriented Mobile Access Point, adding a stateful firewall and the ability to bridge WLAN traffic locally to other clients or a printer. Bluesocket announces a new version of its wireless controller software, that is now common across all its controller models. The software can also download a Java agent to a wireless client, scan it for compliance with corporate security standards and block it from associating with the access point.

Cisco has added features to its WLAN software, including support for condition information via Wi-Fi-based radio tags, from partners such as Ekahau and PanGo. Besides transmitting location data, the tags now can transmit to Cisco’s Location Appliance product data about the object to which the tag is attached: when it was last used, whether a hospital infusion pump was sterilized after use, and so on. A new management application, called Navigator, runs on the Cisco Wireless Control System, and lets a network administrator see, configure and administer groups of Cisco WLAN controllers, rather than each one individually.

Motorola has new code for its RF7000 wireless switch, adding support for location tracking and to let its companion access points handle data traffic while simultaneously monitoring the airwaves for rogue or suspect wireless devices.

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