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Senior Editor

Wireless vendors take center stage

May 05, 20038 mins
Cisco SystemsNetwork Security

New switches, phones and security standards among the highlights for conference crowd.

LAS VEGAS – The industry’s high rollers were betting big on wireless last week, and, like gamblers everywhere, they seem convinced they’ve got a sure thing.

Attendees at NetWorld+Interop found most of the show buzz centered on new 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) gear.

“I’m here to find products and tools that will help make all this a lot easier for me and my staff,” said a network manager for a county medical service in California, who asked not to be named. Security and management wares were at the top of his list.

Many of the industry blue chips and would-be blue chips were more than happy to oblige. These vendors see their salvation in fevered market research numbers predicting millions of wireless users, and millions more wireless notebooks, tablets, PDAs, IP phones and gadgets for the home.

Cisco CEO John Chambers brandished a new wireless IP phone during his keynote address and drew applause when he placed a call over an 802.11b wireless LAN.

Arch-rival Gordon Stitt, CEO of Extreme Networks, talked up his company’s just-unveiled WLAN switch, the culmination of a year-long, top-secret project in which an imported crew of engineers were hidden away in a separate building. He lampooned Cisco’s wireless approach, which is based on intelligent access points running its IOS software. “They’re saying, ‘Please keep buying our access points until we figure this out,'” Stitt said in a briefing with Network World editors. “A year from now, they’ll backtrack on that [approach].”

Voice-over-IP vendors told everyone who’d listen that VoIP and WLANs were a match made in network heaven.

NEC Solutions’ network group unveiled two IP phone handsets, and a strategy that hinges on untested WLAN switch start-up Airespace. NEC’s wireless IP phone package incorporates the Airespace switch and wireless access points. Engineers from both companies worked to tie the switch closely to NEC’s IP voice gateways. The first phone is a voice-only handset due in August; the second, handset with display screen and Web browser for data access. Both will run on any 802.11 WLAN but have been tuned to exploit a range of features on the NEC gateways.

“[VoIP] is the enabler for wireless,” insisted Gary Loitz, chief strategy officer for NEC. “Most of the value associated with [WLANs] today in corporations are in soft dollars. Applications are what make the value measurable. And VoIP is well-known, well-studied and well-quantified.”

Start-up Trapeze Networks, one of an ever-growing pack of WLAN “switch” vendors, was hard to overlook at the show. The company ponied up for a towering 30-by-40-foot booth almost dead center in the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center. It was a huge expanse and presumably a huge expense for a company that has yet to sell anything.

Rivals were quick to point to the booth as evidence of Trapeze’s profligacy with venture funding, while Trapeze marketing vice president George Prodan dismissed the sniping. “You get one chance to make a first impression,” he said. “Where are [the others]? In the Start-up City pavilion in 10-by-10 booths. Let ’em stay there.”

In what’s fast becoming a weekly occurrence, two more wireless switch rivals emerged: Air Broadband, parked in a small booth in the Wi-Fi Pavilion, and Legra Systems, which didn’t have a booth, but hosted demonstrations at a nearby hotel suite.

Legra at the show talked up its wireless LAN switching gear, aimed at adding greater security and greater functionality to corporate WLANs. Legra’s products are a stripped-down 802.11 radio, sometimes called a thin or dumb access point, and a box that plugs into the existing enterprise network. The box typically handles Layer 2 and Layer 3 switching features. It can act as a switch to packets based on IP address, give priority to certain classes of traffic and so on. The Legra gear will support 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g radios.

Legra’s switch includes its own extensible “wireless operating system,” which is a set of software features built atop an embedded Linux kernel. This software lets the switches communicate with each other to do load balancing, to hand off mobile users from one access point or switch to another, and to work with upstream routers.

All security, including all encryption and decryption, is supported on the switch itself. Legra can use almost any of the encryption schemes available, including Triple-DES, AES, and IPSec for VPN connections. The switch also works with existing authentication directories, such as NT Domains, Microsoft Active Directory, and Remote Authentication Dial-In Service.

Intel chips in

Intel kept up its flood of marketing for its recently unveiled Centrino wireless chipset. Centrino consists of the Pentium Mobile microprocessor and three other chips, including for now a non-Intel 802.11b chip, to create a package that can be embedded in a notebook computer. “Centrino is our biggest rollout in 10 years, since Pentium,” said Anthony Ambrose, group marketing manager for Intel.

Some of those most grateful for Intel’s marketing blitz are its rivals.

“Anybody who pumps $300 million in public relations and advertising to promote this market is a godsend,” said Steve Timmerman, vice president of marketing for Bermai, a fabless wireless semiconductor start-up.

Bermai is evidence of the pace and breadth of wireless innovation. Formally founded March 2001, its main intellectual property is a set of patents by its founders, who focused on creating a chipset that reduced hundreds of components to just 50. This level of integration dramatically can cut the cost and the time needed for building WLAN products, Timmerman said.

Its first products are due by year-end. Bermai will introduce chipsets for 5-GHz 802.11a, for 802.11a with the IEEE’s 802.11e standard, for streaming video, for 2.4-GHz 802.11g, which boosts the data rate in this frequency to match 802.11a’s 54M bit/sec, and for combining 80211a, 802.11b and 802.11g.

Although the IEEE has not yet finalized the 802.11g standard, it’s already fueled a spate of network interface cards (NIC) and wireless access points, all of which are supposed to be able to run in existing 802.11b networks. All the enterprise WLAN vendors are promising they will upgrade these products if necessary to match any last-minute changes in the standard.

Proxim unveiled a NIC that supports 802.11b/g and 802.11a, along with two access points that support 802.11b and 802.11g. The idea, said Lynn Lucas, director of marketing, is to let customers boost the throughput of existing 2.4-GHz WLAN deployments, while continuing to support users that still only have 802.11b interfaces. The new products use the most recent two-chip package from Atheros, which combines all three standards, and both frequencies.

“Users don’t have to be concerned [any more] about what wireless standard is in use,” she says. “The ‘combo card’ handles all this.”

Proxim also fiddled with the 802.11g protocol that handles shifting between 802.11b and 802.11g. The changes, the company says, let its 802.11g products sustain higher throughput.

As such products show, the advent of 802.11g is shaking up an industry that seems to be in constant turmoil. Some predict that 802.11b products might be dinosaurs, or relegated to embedded applications, by year-end.

“We see 11g supplanting 11b in less than six months,” Lucas said.

The success of prestandard 802.11g products at Linksys, now a Cisco company, is more evidence of the hunger for higher performance, according to Ron Seide, product line manager for Cisco’s WLAN group. “We see a dual-band world, with 11g and 11a in enterprises that need not only data rate but also capacity,” he says.

A different kind of wireless innovation keeps bubbling out of the Wi-Fi Alliance.This trade group of vendors, promoting 802.11 interoperability, unveiled last week the first WLAN products to pass inspection for better security via the Alliance’s Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) specification.

WPA is an early version of the IEEE’s 802.11i work, which is intended to fix a number of serious weaknesses in the WLAN encryption scheme, called Wired Equivalent Privacy. The idea is that WPA can be loaded into new WLAN access points and cards, and installed via a software upgrade on existing wireless networks.

Vendors passing muster in the first round of testing are wireless chip makers Atheros, Broadcom and Intersil; and hardware vendors Cisco, Intel, Proxim and Symbol Technologies. Details on specific products can be found at

In the face of such rapid changes, network executives are becoming increasingly forward-looking.

“In the future, there will be a chip in everything. And wireless will drive that [trend],” said Jeffrey Campbell, CIO for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the biggest railroads in the U.S. Campbell was in Las Vegas briefing reporters on the railroad’s changing IT infrastructure, and wireless features prominently in those changes.

“The containers and truck trailers we carry today will be able to [wirelessly] ‘talk’ with each other and with our network infrastructure,” he said. WLANs are making BNSF repair facilities more efficient, and a new project will use 802.11b and Global Positioning System data to track the location of each of hundreds or thousands of containers stacked at dockside yards, making loading and unloading faster.

The railroad has started phasing in a digital certificates system from Entrust, to secure its network as wireless use expands. And it has started to move from extensive, private radio networks to more reliance on carrier-based cellular services for voice and data.

Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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