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WLAN architectures grow increasingly creative

Jan 15, 20033 mins
MobileNetwork SecuritySmall and Medium Business

* Forthcoming switch tackles new WLAN issues

I mentioned recently that the year 2003 will see both new and established players bring innovative wireless LAN architecture ideas to the enterprise table.

One start-up, AirFlow Networks in Mountain View, Calif., won’t commercially ship equipment till the second half of the year, but it has very intriguing ideas. So a discussion of the enterprise issues the company (and perhaps some of its newfound competitors) will attempt to address seems in order.

First of all, it’s official: Someone will collapse a wired Ethernet switch into the same box as a so-called “wireless switch” for supporting both populations of users from a common device. Hallelujah! While AirFlow likely won’t be the only company to do so, it is the first to officially tell me it will. So I’m tipping my hat to the start-up, on principle.

Such next-generation combination switches reflect the fact that wireless networks are becoming viewed as an integrated component of the overall enterprise network. At a basic level, such combo products should reduce capital investments and management requirements.

Here are a few of the other issues addressed in AirFlow’s blueprint, as related to me by CEO Harry Bims and Vice President of sales Paul Reps:

* The 802.11 standard doesn’t address interference issues between two access points (AP), says Bims, so organizations usually assign neighboring APs to different channels to avoid interference. This can be a fairly significant administrative burden. AirFlow’s forthcoming switch automatically assigns neighboring APs to the same channel but mitigates interference among the APs using special software smarts, including a location-tracking algorithm. The algorithm tracks which AP is closest to a client and assigns that AP to serve that client.

* The AirFlow approach is to put the 802.11 MAC in the switch and the PHY in the AP. Client devices, then, do not associate with the AP; rather, they associate with a port on the fixed switch. Because of this, employees could literally carry an AP to anywhere they needed coverage where there is an Ethernet port handy – say, to a meeting room – and plug it in.

* The switch also serves as a VPN appliance with IPSec support (as well as 802.11’s own evolving security specifications). It can support a WAN connection in addition to an enterprise backbone LAN connection, Bims says. It applies Layer 2 and Layer 3 services to wired and wireless LAN traffic and supports power-over-Ethernet for reducing cabling requirements to wired desktops and APs alike. It is slated to ship with an element manager.

I don’t think now’s the time to mention pricing, since the product isn’t commercially available. But at this juncture, the per-user costs, as described by Reps, are looking extremely aggressive.