Cisco's WLAN plan has landed

Cisco's latest announcement fleshes out the company's Structured Wireless Aware Network strategy, announced nearly a year ago.

Cisco's idea seems simple enough: Save time and money on building an enterprise wireless LAN by plugging new modules into Catalyst 6500 switches that exploit the wireline infrastructure.

However, rivals and some Cisco switch users say the new WLAN blade and other wireless products announced last week are too late. They also chide Cisco for lagging on radio frequency management, failing to simplify access point management and charging too much.

Cisco's latest announcement fleshes out the company's Structured Wireless Aware Network (SWAN) strategy, announced nearly a year ago. The basic idea, which Extreme Networks and Foundry Networks also are pursuing, is to add a range of mobility and WLAN features to existing wireline switches, instead of adding dedicated WLAN switches to the network.

Sales of WLAN switches, though barely $13 million in the fourth quarter, are on the rise, according to Infonetics Research. Fourth-quarter sales topped the previous quarter's numbers by 51%, the research firm says.

Cisco announced its WLAN Services Module that fits into the Catalyst 6500, a new version of its Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE), plus a new indoor-outdoor Aironet access point/bridge. To complete the package, users also need the Supervisor Engine 720.

Assuming an existing 6500, the total price for the package, with additional software licensing, would be about $62,500.

Individual prices are $18,000 for the new Catalyst blade, licensed for up to 150 Aironet access points (users can expand that to 300 access points with the Advanced Feature Set for Cisco's IOS for $8,000 if they don't already have AFS); $8,495 for the WLSE server Version 2.7; and $28,000 for the Supervisor Engine 720.

Relative simplicity

For existing Cisco customers, the relative simplicity of deploying large-scale WLANs might be a key attraction. The new blade can be slotted into the 6500, with the Supervisor Engine 720. Users then can and download a software update to the Cisco Aironet access points, enabling them to support the Multipoint General Routing Encapsulated (GRE) protocol. The access points use GRE to tunnel back across the IP network to the 6500.

The switch takes care of processing all the data traffic generated by the WLAN. The new blade takes care of the unique features of wirelessly connected clients: tracking users, Layer 3 fast roaming over subnets and maintaining IP addresses.

All together now

Cisco’s Wireless LAN Solution Engine is designed to help companies marry wireless and wireline networks by bringing WLAN features to the Catalyst 6500 switch.
Enables Cisco Aironet access points to tunnel to the 6500 without chang-ing the wired network.
Layer 3 roaming between subnet.
Segmenting of end users into groups without using virtual LANs.
Extension of Catalyst 6500-based services, such as access control lists and quality of service, to WLAN users.

One Cisco WLAN user eager to pilot the new product is John Halamka, CIO of CareGroup Health System, a Boston healthcare consortium. "Layer 3 roaming is desirable, as we do not want to extend Layer 2 broadcast domains beyond our distribution layer [in the network]," he says. Layer 2 wireless bridging caused a network outage in 2002. "We are very enthusiastic about Cisco's new product," he says.

"As long as the functions and services they introduce to the switch do not add undesirable workload to the switch's CPU and backplane, or require us to introduce a Catalyst operating system version that is not mature, we should be OK," Halamka says.

"You enable [the WLAN] using a large number of services already available on the Catalyst 6500," says Abner Germanow, program manager for enterprise networks at IDC. "For the unique WLAN services, you have the improved WLSE, where they now have enough in there to address the security concerns around access points and do more radio frequency management. Combine this with the roaming and other functions in the new 6500 module and it's a pretty strong solution."

Rivals disagree, arguing that Cisco's package is a pricey kludge.

"They've got this 'white elephant' in the back of the network, and they give you GRE services at the core. That's not a WLAN switching architecture," says Gary Singh, senior director of marketing at Symbol Technologies, which previously offered traditional WLAN access points, but now is betting the farm on its WS 5000 wireless switch. (Read more on this topic with our Face-off.)

Singh says that Cisco's WLAN scheme is simply a very expensive way to manage the Aironet access points, which run a special version of Cisco's IOS software. "They've picked an architecture that's very heavy, and expensive, for most deployments," he says.

A "heavyweight" solution doesn't bother some users. "I do agree that having IOS on the [Aironet] access points is like adding hundreds of routers to our network," says Todd Diersheide,a senior network engineer at Sovereign Bank in Wyomissing, Pa. "We already manage hundreds of routers on our network, and I consider that something we do very well."

As for Symbol's contention that Cisco's offering is expensive, Cisco officials disagree.

"If you look at any medium-size business or a 10-story building, and all of a sudden, they'll easily have 150 to 200 access points," counters Douglas Gouray, product line manager for Cisco's Internet systems business unit. "If you take an [entirely new] deployment, with the Supervisor Engine and the new 6500 module, and divide that by the [maxim] number of access points supported [300], it's a very cost-effective number," he says.

Feel the power

Throughput, or how much wireless traffic each switch can handle is another consideration, and Cisco touts the power of the 6500's hardware.

"Look at our throughput numbers, compared to a single Gigabit Ethernet port [on some rival WLAN switches]. If you do the math, some of these switches can only support about 13 access points. You'd need 16 different switches to support 300," Gouray says. By contrast, he says, the 6500 with just one forwarding engine, terminating the WLAN's fast secure roaming tunnels in hardware, can handle 10 million packets per second for WLAN users. Cisco says one of the new blades can support 6,000 users on 300 access points.

Those are important numbers for big customers, for whom last week's news is a "superb announcement," says Gary Berzack, CEO for Tribeca Express, a Manhattan network integrator that has worked with Aironet WLANs for nearly 10 years. "We have existing [network] infrastructures where we can just throw this in. [Through Cisco] we can have a national procurement capability. I can get round-the-clock support and decent support [response] times. It's a known, well-designed enterprise-class product."

But there are weak points, he acknowledges. "Companies like AirMagnet have thoroughbred [WLAN scanning] sensors designed for the enterprise space," he says. "Don't rely on [the 6500 blade and the new version of WLSE] for all your intrusion-detection system and radio-frequency monitoring. There are other things out there that are far more mature."

Berzack acknowledges that the prices are hefty. "It's not for the faint of heart," he says. "It's aimed at quite large deployments."

But some in the hungry pack of vastly smaller rivals, all of whom offer dedicated WLAN switches and simplified access points, might be repositioning themselves, ceding the biggest corporations to Cisco and intensifying their battle for the small to midrange market.

"You may see competitors start to focus on the smaller enterprises, where the Cisco solution is too complex and expensive," IDC's Germanow says.

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