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LAN/wireless LAN integration still evolving

Wireless network trends: Overlay networks all the rage in most cases

By Phil Hochmuth, Network World
April 04, 2007 09:43 AM ET

Network World - Ethernet switch vendors who offer combined or unified LAN and WLAN gear say the ultimate goal is to get wired and wireless network technologies to appear as a single network access layer. However, switch vendors and industry experts say this is still a ways off — both in terms of the technology, and the demand for unified gear from users.

"We're still in the early days of unified LAN/WLAN networks," says Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group, a Massachusetts-based WLAN consultancy. "I wouldn't say any offering is really complete at this point. It's an enormous technological and marketing challenge to get everything integrated together" — where switches, access points, management software are all unified with a single security architecture.

"It's going to take a while until we get to that point."

Many analysts and industry observers said that corporate WLAN technology — particularly, WLAN switch technology — would be absorbed by LAN switch vendors in the long run. The thinking goes that business IT administrators would prefer wireless and management of the WLAN integrated into a wired infrastructure.

LAN/WLAN convergence
While LAN switch vendors who offer wireless LAN (WLAN) gear say their products are well integrated, there are still challenges in bringing together the two technologies. Some of these include:

Unified management: LAN and WLAN infrastructure may share common tools or applications for management, but these two network technologies still operate as separate entities in many enterprises, with different directories and policies.
Security: Network access control seeks to unify LAN and WLAN security and access, and technologies such as 802.1X span both realms. But access clients and protocols differ widely for users plugged into an Ethernet switch, vs. roaming laptop users.
Standards: The constant flux of the 802.11 standards has caused some to wait to deploy LAN and WLAN gear that's truly unified. The emergence of 802.11n might spur more adoption.
Click to see: LAN/WAN convergence

Vendors such as Cisco, 3Com and others have offered WLAN for more than 10 years. But this gear was based on the thick access-point model, where an access point has its own IP address and is managed as a separate network element. In 2002 and 2003, WLAN switching emerged, with a new approach to wireless. Access points are managed as network-attached radios, tied to a centralized WLAN controller or switch, which provides central access settings, configuration and security. This is what is called an overlay network: The WLAN is essentially a second network, laid on top of the base Ethernet LAN. Security, physical-layer access and management are two separate realms.

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