AirFlow's WLAN Switch Packs a Big MAC
This time it's AirFlow Networks, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup that is backed by VC firm Bay Partners.
Wireless LAN switches are a new class of device that sits in the wiring closet, between the management console and the wireless access points dotted around the office space. The switch and the access point are connected via Ethernet cabling. The switch handles tasks like prioritization of available bandwidth, data encryption, and user authentication on the wireless network.
Companies working on these types of products include Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) (see Symbol's Cisco Killer?), Aruba Networks Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc. (see Trapeze's Wireless Bait & Switch).
AirFlow is combining wireless LAN "switching" with a wired Ethernet switch in a single box. In fact, the company does not even describe its AirSwitch product as a wireless switch, but simply as a switch.
"We think that the Ethernet switching market has become stagnant," the company's founder, Harry Bims, told Unstrung. "We're the next generation of Ethernet switching."
The company says that AirSwitch provides "standard Layer 3 Ethernet switch features." But it's likely to be the wireless capabilities of the switch, and the specially-developed access points (AP) that connect to that switch, that will get people talking.
Like its rivals, Airflow has moved the Media Access Control (MAC) layer functionality off the wireless LAN access points and onto the switch itself. Allowing multiple access points to share a single MAC makes the network much easier to manage, because the switch provides a single point of control.
However, Bims considers the management capabilities as "fringe benefits." He says the real plus is that this approach makes the actual deployment of such nodes "plug and play." Because there’s only one MAC in the network (on the switch), the wireless transmitters in each access point act like one big wireless LAN and can share the same frequency. That’s quite different from a regular 802.11 network, where each access point would be allocated its own frequency – a tedious chore. “They co-exist on the same channel. That means you don’t have to do a lot of frequency planning, or a site survey [to check for interference and radio overlap]," he says.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the product isn’t shipping yet, so there’s no hard evidence that interference won’t be an issue. In fact, most net managers will surely want to road-test such a product before committing traffic to it.
Bims says that in addition to AirFlow's own AirScout access points, the switch can also be used with existing access points from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and other vendors.
Stripping all the "intelligence" out of its AirScout access point also enables it to be squeezed into a form factor around the size of a personal digital assistant (PDA). Most access points are somewhere between the size of a large lunchbox or a small laptop. Bims likes to call the tiny nodes "RF jacks."
How big the access points are may appear to be a very minor issue, but actually size does matter when you are deploying access points in corporate environments, according to Abner Germanow, wireless LAN research manager at IDC. Often, with corporate rollouts, larger wireless LAN access points are deployed in the ceiling of a building. "It’s the key to this issue," Germanow says. These companies are frequently building out systems in buildings they don't own. Do they even have the right to access the ceiling?"
AirFlow's Bims says that removing the "brain" of the access point and transferring it to a centralized switch also helps to deal with the problem of access points being stolen if they are deployed in plain view in the office. "Our design eliminates the reason for thieving, because there's no intelligence in the jack. It won't work on its own."
Bims says that AirFlow has two customers trialing the system now. He expects the products to be commercially available in the summer.
He won't disclose exactly how much seed funding Bay Partners is putting up. However, he did say that it was in the neighborhood of $10 million.
— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung