Optical/IP Networks

Cisco's Switch Ambition

Wireless LAN switch startups are all in a tizzy about Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) plans to announce a wireless product at the beginning of next month.

Theories about what the networking giant will unveil range from the mundane to the paranoid, which is hardly surprising given that whatever Cisco does will undoutedly have huge ramifications for the startups in the 802.11 switch space.

"We've heard a variety of things from different quarters," says Alan Cohen, VP of marketing at Airespace Inc. "From a wireless LAN switch to software upgrades… nothing definite."

On the other hand, David Callisch, communications director at Aruba Networks Inc., has a very definite idea of what Cisco has planned.

He thinks Cisco, currently the number one supplier of enterprise 802.11 access points, wants to keep its current customers happy with a stopgap centralized WLAN management product that will give them an alternative to buying kit from the 802.11 switch startups.

"I think what they want to do is stall the market," he says.

Callisch speculates that Cisco may announce a blade for one of its existing LAN switches that will support the kind of centralized management and policy enforcement features that are the raison d'être of the 802.11 WLAN switches from the startup community. The blade, he believes, will feature common WLAN switch features like Power-over-Ethernet (POE), VPN-termination, and support for the 802.1x security specification. It will work with so-called "dumb" or "thin" access points, giving customers an alternative to Cisco's current line of access points, which are smart and fat (i.e., incorporate intelligence of their own).

This stopgap, Callisch thinks, will give Cisco time to build a true WLAN switching architecture -- or buy one (see Cisco’s LAN Switch: Build or Buy?).

Meanwhile, George Prodan, senior VP of marketing at Trapeze Networks Inc. expects Cisco to try and patch up its WLAN offering -- a move he also sees as a stopgap before Cisco gets down to the serious business of buying into the market.

"Cisco will likely speak 'marketecture' and add another IOS [internetwork operating system] release, which adds little," Prodan predicts. "Cisco will wait till they see the direction that the market wants; then they will likely shop around for the best-fit company to fill that product-line gap." Whatever Cisco does announce on June 2, one source tells Unstrung the company is keenly aware of the emerging switch market. He says that at the recent Networld Interop show in Las Vegas he saw Cisco executives on the show floor checking out all the WLAN switch products they could find.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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