Insider Outlines WLAN Challenge

As the market for enterprise wireless LANs closes 2006 at around $1.3 billion, vendors are finding that the coupling of disruptive new technologies with an ever-rising bar for performance requirements is creating major challenges for both the development and marketing of their products.

That's the conclusion of the new report from Unstrung Insider, entitled "WLAN Market Strategies: The Enterprise Challenge."

"On the applications side it's about tighter integration with sophisticated services such as corporate VOIP and asset tracking, or even relatively simple guest access capability," says Gabriel Brown, the author of the report. "And on the technology side it's about MIMO, the unification of wired and wireless infrastructure, wireless mesh, and, in some cases, the migration to distributed switching architectures."

The new report outlines two distinct phases in the evolution of enterprise wireless LAN networks. The first was the era of "fat APs," or intelligent access points, which comprised all the components required to process 802.11 frames and forward traffic over Ethernet connections into the LAN. The second, prevalent today, centers around centralized architectures and "thin APs," which tunnel data from the access point back to a centralized switch or controller, where it is processed and forwarded. The advantage of the latter is to simplify management, configuration, and policy control.

Two related technologies will transform WLANs in the next evolutionary phase, reports Brown: the emergence of MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) radios and the spread of distributed switching.

The most anticipated development in wireless LAN since the 802.11i security standard introduced enterprise-grade encryption, MIMO essentially takes advantage of multi-path and spatial multiplexing techniques to increase the throughput of a given radio-frequency channel.

Distributed switching handles traffic control and management in the controller while offloading such functions as encryption/decryption and 802.11 frame processing back to the AP. Data-plane traffic is either switched locally or forwarded to the controller, depending on the user or application type. At least theoretically, separating control-plan and data-plane traffic in this way provides more flexibility, scaleability, and "bang for the buck."

The only enterprise vendor to have adopted MIMO so far is Bluesocket Inc. , which announced plans for a MIMO access point in mid-2006 using an Airgo Networks Inc. chipset. As for the distributed switching architectures, there appears to be a split in the market between established and emerging vendors: "Market leaders Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL), and Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) say they do not see a requirement for distributed switching," writes Brown. "Instead, the market challengers, primarily Trapeze Networks Inc. and Colubris Networks Inc. , are pushing hardest for this vision."

Finally, the integration of wired and wireless networks will present the next big challenge for network equipment suppliers as they look to merge wireless LANs with standing infrastructure.

What form this integration will take, however, remains an open question. Several vendors are building devices that package the WLAN and Ethernet switch cards in one box, anticipating that eventually the same hardware will be used for both types of access. Both Cisco and 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS) have launched such unified products recently.

Historically, though, attempts to integrate WLAN and wired Ethernet switches have not been successful, primarily because enterprises are not keen to replace existing wiring-closet equipment. And as the replacement cycle for Ethernet switching equipment gets longer, the near-term opportunity for integrated products, at least in larger enterprises, has not yet become apparent.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

"WLAN Market Strategies: The Enterprise Challenge" is available as part of an annual subscription (12 issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, or for more information about this report, please visit: Unstrung Insider.

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