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Start-ups vs. incumbents: Which fits best for your WLAN needs?

Apr 30, 20032 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityWi-Fi

* Differentiating among vendors and architecture types

There are two sides to every story. Start-ups always have the advantage of addressing networking problems with a “blank slate.” They don’t bring extra baggage to the network table in terms of legacy protocols, out-of-sync software versions and old technology that falls short in terms of price/performance. Established vendors, though, can turn some of that baggage into an asset; if it’s already in your network, who best to integrate it with new capabilities but the company that understands it best?

Both are valid arguments that could probably go on until the end of time, but nowhere is this catfight more prominent than in the wireless LAN arena. Putting aside for the moment the vendors in the category of add-on security and roaming products, there are three primary approaches to delivering WLAN systems:

1) Start-ups and incumbents that are not traditional wired Ethernet switch makers but make WLAN switches or controllers and “thin” access points. In this category, the WLAN switches plug into existing wiring-closet Ethernet switches. Examples: Symbol Technologies, Proxim (both long-time wireless suppliers) and Airespace, Aruba and Chantry (start-ups). You need additional equipment in the wiring closet, but the products are optimized for wireless idiosyncrasies. Gets to the old “we do chicken right” argument of whether a vendor should focus on one technology area or offer a more comprehensive set of network components.

2) Start-ups and incumbents that make integrated wireless/wired LAN switches and thin (or somewhat thin) access points. Examples: AirFlow, Trapeze (start-ups), Extreme and Nortel (incumbents). Capital equipment requirements are reduced, element management is integrated and, in the case of incumbents, the network services associated with Ethernet and IP on the wired network (quality of service, hot standby recovery protocols, virtual LANs and so forth) extend directly into the WLAN. Avoids the “WLAN as network island” issue.

3) Incumbents that make intelligent access points and a data center management appliance or module. Because network services are in the access points, no extra or special wiring closet switch or controller is required. Examples: Cisco, Enterasys (both incumbents in both the WLAN and wired network space). Generally less scalable in terms of initial configuration in large installations but more potentially scalable in terms of scaling services directly in step with access point capacity.

These are just a few of the issues you might consider discussing as you talk to potential vendors.