WLAN vendors spar over methods

Wireless LAN equipment vendors drew sharp contrasts among themselves in the spirited debate of Network World's Wireless LAN Showdown yesterday.

At the CeBit America trade show in New York, four vendors shot holes in each other's arguments while struggling to put forth their own distinct visions of how wireless networking should be done. The result was a clear divide between the two established wired-network vendors, Cisco and Extreme Networks, and the two wireless start-ups, Airespace and Aruba Wireless Networks.

Ron Seide, senior product line manager for Cisco's wireless networking business unit, touted the company's "integrated approach," where higher-level functions like security and quality of service are handled across both wired and wireless nets by the recently announced additions to the high-end Catalyst 6500 switch.

"What if you don't have a Catalyst 6500?" asked Alan Cohen, vice president of marketing and product management at Airespace.

Seide responded that Cisco's "research" showed that companies of the size that might need Layer 3 mobility would be likely to have the high-end 6500 already installed.

Aruba's Keerti Melkote countered that Cisco's approach still requires wireless access points that are heavy on both functionality and cost, and any security-related functions would mean further costs in the form of additional blades for the 6500. Aruba favors a "thin" access point with centralized management.

Seide retorted, "The so-called 'thin' access point is just as fat as other access points," with as much processing power and other hardware overhead. Plus, customers still have to buy the corresponding central controller or it doesn't work.

"It's just redistributing the costs companies pay," he said.

Seide later further defended Cisco's Catalyst 6500-centric approach, saying that this is just the beginning and hinting that other, less expensive equipment would support WLANs in the future.

Like Seide, Extreme's Vipin Jain also promoted the idea of an integrated approach. "We introduced the idea of unified access more than 12 months ago," said Jain, vice president and general manager of LAN access.

He argued that security and other functions "need to work seamlessly across wired and wireless." Otherwise, he warned, two parallel networks would be created, adding complexity.

"A lot of things [Jain] said are true - if you're trying to protect your switch," Cohen said. "This new access method [wireless] has different physical properties" and therefore requires a separate approach.

Cohen later pointed out that carriers keep packet forwarding and radio frequency (RF) management in separate devices for that reason, and other types of devices are kept separate as well.

"If you are doing complex functions like firewalls or RF management, you have to run a different set of computational calculations," he said. "Last I checked, the [IBM mainframe] S/390 is not a Web server, either."

During the debate the two start-ups spoke frankly about the biggest problems they had encountered when trying to set up their earliest wireless LANs. Aruba was surprised by the activity among employees and attempted intruders in an early installation, making intrusion detection capabilities a high priority. "Very quickly, there were a lot of intrusion attempts on the wireless LAN," said Melkote, Aruba's co-founder and vice president of product marketing.

For security, then, Aruba relies on its central server for enforcement. "The users are not trusted but the access point is trusted," Melkote said.

Cohen said Airespace ran into trouble in that technologies the company thought were fairly standard were actually not quite mature. He cited differences among WLAN clients and unidentified challenges with RADIUS authentication.

Vendors disagreed on the need for a site survey to determine where to place access points for best coverage. Melkote said Aruba offers a tool that will tell you where to put the access points, making a site survey unnecessary.

Cisco's Seide argued that a site survey is "pretty simple" and "absolutely required" for healthcare, manufacturing, warehouses and other locations.

Among all the serious debate, the panelists managed at least one laugh. At one point Seide, in talking about Cisco's Aironet equipment, stopped himself. "Aironet - I almost said Airespace," he said.

"Wishful thinking," replied Airespace's Cohen.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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