Cisco moves to integrate WLANs with wired networks

Cisco released gear to help customers integrate wireless LANs with Cisco wired network gear and extending them outdoors.

Two boards, for the Catalyst 6500 switch and the Integrated Services Router (ISR), centralize management and administration of Cisco’s thin access points inside existing network chassis, without requiring users to install separate WLAN controllers. The new outdoor mesh access point finally brings Cisco into a burgeoning market that's been dominated by rivals such as BelAir, Nortel, Strix, and Tropos.

All three products are based on technology developed by WLAN switch vendor Airespace, acquired by Cisco earlier this year to create a wireless architecture of stripped down access points linked to a central switch, now dubbed a controller.

The two boards are the Cisco Wireless Service Module (WiSM) for the 6500 and the Cisco Wireless LAN Controller Moduel for the ISR. Cisco says it has sold more than 300,000 6500 boxes and more than 500,000 ISRs. The majority of both products can accept the new boards, according to Alan Cohen, senior director of product management for Cisco’s Wireless Network Business Unit.

The new 6500 blade incorporates the guts of a Cisco WLAN controller. Each blade delivers 8G bit/sec of throughput, and can manage up to 300 access points. By comparison, a previous blade introduced before the Airespace acquisition, supported just 150 access points. Aruba, another WLAN controller vendor, offers its high-end standalone 6000 Mobility Controller, which supports 8G bit/sec throughput and up to 512 access points. The Cisco blade works with both the companion thin access points and existing Aironet access points that have been upgraded with some additional software. Up to five blades can be installed in each 6500. Each blade bundles an array of Cisco network and RF management software, including intrusion prevention features.

But the new blade currently lacks true integration with the Cisco switch fabric, Cohen acknowledged. The WiSM simply shares the 6500’s Supervisor module, which provides the switching fabric for the entire chassis, moving traffic across ports on different line cards inside the switch. And if the chassis has modules for a firewall or intrusion detection service, the WiSM can make use of these features, according to Cohen.

But the actual management, administration, and security for the WLAN is still handled separately from the wired net. That will change over time, Cohen says, as Cisco adds software to tie its wireless nets into ambitious schemes like the “self-defending network” project, which envisions a network that can automatically evaluate and adapt to network threats. But Cohen provided no additional detail over what other Cisco executives provided six months earlier on how or when this higher level integration will be created.

Each WiSM blade is $45,000, dramatically higher than $18,000 for the first wireless blade introduced before the Airespace acquisition. The WiSM cost compares to $35,000 for the high-end standalone Cisco 4400 controller.

The Wireless LAN Controller Module for the ISR 2800 and 3800 series products manages no more than six access points, more than enough for the typical branch or small office. The module can communicate over the WNA link to a central Cisco controller or the WiSM. The central controller can send down configuration and security settings for the branch office access points, and manage them remotely. This board is priced at $2,300.

Both boards are in beta test, will ship in December.

The mesh product, the Cisco 1500, is Cisco’s late entry into a burgeoning market for outdoor wireless nets that can route packets among wireless nodes, thereby minimizing cable costs and sidestepping outages or radio interference.

As previously reported, the 1500 has two radios: it uses 802.11b/g connections with client devices, and 802.11a for backhaul and routing among the various nodes. The mesh can support up to eight hops, but Cisco recommends a maximum of four, according to Cohen. One or more of these nodes connects to any existing Cisco WLAN controller. The node is fully managed by Cisco’s existing Wireless Control System management application.

The 1500 uses Advanced Encryption System (AES) to encrypt links between mesh nodes, and supports Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), WPA, and Wired Equivalent Privacy for client connections.

The 1500 is priced at $3,995 and is available now.

Learn more about this topic

Cisco’s 2004 WLAN blade for the Catalyst 6500, 05/06/04

Cisco’s upcoming 6500 Supervisor module, 08/15/05

Cisco’s sketchy outline of wireless LAN integration, 05/02/05

Network World’s previous reporting on the Cisco wireless mesh, 11/03/05

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