Cisco’s LAN Switch: Build or Buy?

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is the big, scary clown in the corner at the wireless LAN switch startup party, and industry watchers are waiting for the networking giant to come crashing into the festivities, popping all the new entrants' balloons and crushing their cupcakes.

Some analysts think it is just a matter of time before the Cisco wireless switch stampede starts. The real question is: Will Cisco build a switch, or buy a startup that has one ready to go?

Currently Cisco's approach, in common with most WLAN vendors, is to offer a distributed network of "fat" or "intelligent" access points that act independently of each other. However, there are a bunch of startups like AirFlow Networks, Aruba Networks Inc., and Trapeze Networks Inc., as well more established players such as Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) , that are pushing wireless switches as a new way to centrally manage entire networks of access points (see AirFlow's WLAN Switch Packs a Big MAC, Aruba's Switch Pitch, Trapeze's Wireless Bait & Switch, and Symbol's Cisco Killer?).

These wireless LAN switches act as the brains for networks of "thin" or "dumb" access points, allowing systems administrators to manage security, access rights, and the allocation of available bandwidth, via a box in the wiring closet that is hooked up to the outside world via Ethernet cabling. The advantage of this approach, say its exponents, is that it is less expensive than rolling out a lot of "intelligent" radios and means less trips out into the office to tinker with the settings on individual access points for the poor, down-trodden systems administrator.

However, Cisco has, so far, shown no inclination to put all of its brains in one basket. Instead, the company keeps bolting features onto (and into) its Aironet series of access points, such as authentication and user policies.

"We believe it is important to have intelligence in every part of the network," a Cisco spokeswoman told Unstrung. She refused to comment on the possibility of the company coming out with a wireless LAN switch in the future.

Some analysts think they doth protest too much "They swear up and down they'll stick to that [distributed] approach," says Chris Kozup, senior research analyst, global networking strategies, at Meta Group Inc. "I'm not sure I believe that, I think they'll go where the customer goes."

Currently, the closest thing to a wireless LAN switch that Cisco has in its product line is called the Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE). System administrators accessing the WLSE via a Web client can monitor and change the configuration of Cisco access points and check traffic trends.

Clearly, this is not as sophisticated as the switch offerings from vendors such as Aruba or AirFlow. For instance, Aruba's Air Monitor software, which it will sell as part of a package with its switch, can do sneaky stuff like detect rogue media access control (MAC) layer addresses on the network and send them disconnection notices.

However, Meta's Kozup reckons that Cisco could bring out a box with at least some of those kinds of functions onboard this year. "Enterprise customers have told us that Cisco has told them that they could have a product in nine months," he says.

So will Cisco build this product or buy it in?

Posters on Unstrung’s boards have suggested that Cisco is already working on a network management module -- part of its Supervisor Engine product line (see Cisco Beefs Up Ethernet Switching) -- which would aim to offer the functionality delivered by rivals' wireless LAN switches. It might even offer wireless LAN "switching" capabilities as part of a modular upgrade for its existing wired LAN switch products.

We asked Kozup what he thinks about this prospect. "I wouldn't be surprised," he allows, adding that it would fit with the way that Cisco likes to centralize routing intelligence within a platform. However, other analysts lean more towards the theory that Cisco will reach into its pockets and buy one of the many startups working on wireless switching products.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
lrmobile_whalenc 12/5/2012 | 12:48:09 AM
re: Cisco’s LAN Switch: Build or Buy? When I see the "build or buy" q: re CSCO, always makes me laugh. Does CSCO ever build anything? My impression is that "buy" is the default and that wireless will be no different.
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