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Can WLAN startups take on the 800-lb gorilla?

Jan 29, 20033 mins
MobileNetwork SecuritySmall and Medium Business

* Wireless: What needs to gel?

As mentioned earlier this week, the various segments of the wireless industry – wireless LANs, mobile WANs, and fixed last-mile access networks-all have a ways to go before we can confidently call any of these networks “mature.”

Let’s examine some of the factors to be sorted out before the general populace can truly be untethered, particularly when it comes to data networking. By “truly untethered,” I mean that most humans with average intelligence could use the technology comfortably and roam among networks with a modicum of configuration responsibilities and with session/coverage stability.

Wireless LANs are a good place to start for the enterprise. There is, of course, the issue of emerging third-generation architectures. First and foremost, these include wireless “switches” and omnidirectional antennas on indoor 802.11 base stations. These architectures are competing with smart APs for greater scalability and manageability.

At a high level, many of the exciting products emerging from start-ups such as AirFlow Networks, Aruba Wireless, BlackStorm, Trapeze Networks and Vivato Networks, as well as from established players Proxim (soon!) and Symbol, sound similar in function. They read a MAC-layer address, forward packets from one port to another (or to a wired Ethernet switch), and also apply any number of Layer 2 and 3 services to wireless traffic. Some of these services are traditional (virtual LANs, access lists, encryption); others, like “air monitoring” for rogue access points and automated site survey applications (both from Aruba), add new value.

Look closely to sort out the differences among these products as they come to market this year (this newsletter will be one place where these subtleties will be compared). Determine what each brings to the table beyond their inherent scalability promise for large AP installations and match the relevant capabilities to your own network environment and requirements.

But keep in mind that Cisco, which is standing firm with its “smart AP” stance, owns a big chunk of the enterprise, both wired and wireless. According to Synergy Research, Cisco leads the wireless LAN pack with about 35% market share. The next nearest competitor is Symbol, with about 15% share, followed by Proxim, with about 12%, Synergy says.

And Cisco’s “smart AP” approach runs counter to the wireless switch phenomenon. Cisco gear allows central management of all your APs; the company just happens to feel that applying services closer to the user in an AP offers performance and security benefits.

Regardless of your personal architectural philosophy, you can’t entirely ignore the 800-pound gorilla.