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Optical/IP

Broadcom Integrates WLAN

Analysts have long expected the wireless LAN switch to get absorbed into other network appliances, and Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) is taking a major step in that direction with today's release of Ethernet chips integrating wireless LAN switching.

The chips are the first in Broadcom's new StrataXGS III line of Ethernet switch chips. These devices continue the escalating integration of Ethernet chips, with the largest, the BCM56504, boasting 24 ports of Gigabit Ethernet and four ports of 10-Gbit/s Ethernet. That's a notch higher than the 24 Gigabit Ethernet and three 10-Gbit/s Ethernet ports offered by rival Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), but still less than the 48 ports of Gigabit Ethernet available from Agere Systems Inc. (NYSE: AGR.A). (See Broadcom Unveils StrataXGS III.)

More important than the port count is the inclusion of features such as encryption and denial-of-service blocking. Broadcom is trying to beef up the powers of the ordinary Ethernet switch, much in the same way as Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) integrated services routers add support for applications (see Cisco Takes Apps on Board).

Among the most notable features is the inclusion of wireless LAN switching capability. Broadcom sees this as the first step toward absorbing the wireless LAN switch into an Ethernet switch.

"You'll see the same thing that happened to other appliances that became integrated -- load balancers, for example," says Eric Hayes, Broadcom product line manager.

"I've had that feeling for a long time -- that [the wireless LAN switch] will become a feature for switch vendors," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with The Yankee Group.

It's a trend presaged by Cisco's recent $450 million bid to acquire Airespace Inc. (see Cisco Buys Airespace and Cisco's Airespace Program). While Cisco intends to continue selling Airespace products, many in the industry believe the wireless LAN switch is destined to become a linecard inside Cisco routers, rather than a separate system.

The key is that semiconductors continually pack more circuitry into a given space, making it common for entire appliances to get collapsed into a handful of chips. Given that trend, it's likely that more companies will eventually add wireless LAN switching to other products, says Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias. "You will see a number of products this year that take wired and wireless equipment and reduce them to a small number of chips," he says.

This doesn't, however, mean that the wireless LAN switch is a commodity yet -- good news for switch vendors such as Aruba Wireless Networks and Trapeze Networks Inc.. "There's a lot of software involved. You can't throw [chip integration] at that," Mathias says.

The demand for integration will come "at an intersection of the deployment of 802.11n and 802.11i security," Hayes says. The 802.11n standard is the next speed upgrade for wireless LANs -- 108 Mbit/s -- and 802.11i provides security standards that most wireless LAN vendors are already adopting. Hayes believes the extra speed, in particular, will start driving the need for 1-Gbit/s links in the wireless network, providing an opportune time for the wireless LAN switch to integrate into the Gigabit Ethernet switch.

On the security side, the combining of wireless LAN and Ethernet switches would help simplify the operation of the network. "A lot of the security policies and features you want to have in your wired network, you also want to have in your wireless network. So there's no sense having two separate boxes," Kerravala says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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