WLANs shift to new gear

New wireless LAN products from Cisco and a pack of others are the latest evidence that keeping up with advances in this market is getting ever more challenging.

New wireless LAN products from Cisco and a pack of others are the latest evidence that keeping up with advances in this market is getting ever more challenging.

New 802.11g-based radios from Cisco, for example, feature the fifth iteration of the company's 2.4-GHz chipset, which blends Cisco silicon with that of an unnamed partner. Quite apart from the data rate boost in 802.11g (54M bit/sec vs. 11M bit/sec for 802.11b, in the same frequency band), Cisco recommends enterprise customers upgrade to 802.11g from 802.11b because of improvements in range and throughput due to the silicon engineering advances.

3ComAruba Wireless NetworksBluesocketNewbury Networks and SMC Networks, also are rolling out new offerings. They range from WLAN switches to adapter cards that boost wireless range.

But as welcome as the improvements might prove, for many companies the mantra of "new and improved and faster" is secondary to the complexities that WLANs are introducing.

"When we talk with big enterprises about WLANs, the first things that come up are operational issues, like 'How do I support the network?' 'How do I manage all these new security functions?' and [also] questions about the cost of operating the WLAN," says Abner Germanow, a research manager at IDC. "After that, we talk about [WLAN] performance."

That's not to suggest corporations aren't buying WLAN infrastructure products. Worldwide, this group bought 17% more access points last year than they did the year before, according to Synergy Research Group. And for the first nine months of this year, they snapped up about 806,800 access points, which is 26% more than they purchased through the first nine months of last year.

Still, observers wonder if shipments might be even higher if there were not so many questions.

"Some customers are confused about 802.11a [54M bit/sec, 5-GHz band] vs. 11b vs. 11g, and confused about the [WLAN] security options," says Tom Hagin, vice president of wireless business at NetXperts, a San Ramon, Calif., systems integrator that builds Cisco-based WLANs for enterprise clients. For those clients, NetXperts is taking a conservative approach, such as by not using the new class of WLAN switches. "They're vaporware at this point largely," Hagin says. "We're not willing to put them into production yet."

Even vendors seem to agree that the flood of products might be causing customers to hold back on large-scale deployments.

"You need other things besides [just] faster silicon," said Jim Johnson, general manager of Intel's wireless network group, who spoke last week at the Cisco product announcement. "You need services, features, ease of use."

As for Cisco, in addition to the new 802.11g radios for its Aironet 1100 and 1200 access points, the company unveiled WLAN client adapters that can work with 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g access points, and Version 2.5 of the CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solutions Engine (WLSE), which is a server for administering access points. WLSE 2.5 now can work with the access point software to detect unauthorized access points, approximate the location of an access point and automate at least some of the work in figuring out where to place and configure them.

A new version of Cisco's IOS software, designed for the Aironet access points, includes a built-in encryption engine for the Advanced Encryption System, which is expected to become the WLAN cryptographic algorithm when the IEEE 802.11i security standard is finalized next year.

Cisco's 1100 is priced at $595, for either the 802.11b or 802.11g radio; the dual-radio 1200 costs $849. Existing customers can buy an 802.11g card to plug into the access points for $149. The CardBus adapter costs $169; and the PCI product is $249. The WLSE is priced at $9,000.

Pricing for Cisco's access points are: 1100 is $595, for either the 802.11b or 802.11g radio; the dual-radio 1200 is $849. Existing customers can buy an 802.11g card to plug into the access points for $149. The CardBus adapter costs $169; and the PCI product $249. The WLSE is priced at $9,000.

New offerings from competitors include the Aruba 2400 WLAN switch, which processes wireless packets that wireline switches can only see when 802.11 packets are converted to Ethernet. Aruba now offers three of these boxes for WLAN deployments in small offices, larger regional offices, or big WLANs at a headquarters or office campus. Twin Gigabit Ethernet ports link the new box to the network core.

Like rival products, the Aruba 2400 supports Layer 2 and Layer 3 switching, and applies a range of administration and security policies to WLAN users. It also serves as a means to monitor and control radio waves.

Base price is $5,000. Customers then buy up to three separate software packages, at $4,000 each, to run on the box.

By contrast, Bluesocket has pushed to the back burner its plan to build into its gateways the higher layer switching features Aruba offers. Instead, it plans to unveil early next year a beefed-up gateway for large-scale WLANs.

The new WG-5000 has been engineered for up to 1,000 users and can sustain throughput of about 300M to 500M bit/sec of encrypted data. It will have two 10/100/1000M bit/sec interfaces, optional 1000Base-SX fiber interfaces and, for the first time, solid state, or flash memory, storage instead of a hard drive. All Bluesocket gateways use a mesh-networking algorithm to communicate among themselves.

New from 3Com are access points with an 802.11g radio. List prices range from $750 to $1,100. New WLAN adapters, in PC Card and PCI Card formats, can connect via 802.11a, b or g and each costs $135.

SMC's EliteConnectX 802.11b High Power Wireless Card extends the range up to 2,700 feet - three to nine times as far as earlier products - by boosting radio power to 200 milliwatts. SMC says this $70 card has nearly four times the power of rival products.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.