The Evolution of the Access Point

NOON -- The humble wireless LAN access point is evolving again with faster radios, more mesh, and even new architectures on the cards. So let's run down what's going on in the world of WiFi.

802.11n: The coming of WiFi with raw data speeds of up to 600 Mbit/s is going to shake up the whole of the industry. Consumers were first to the game with so-called "pre-n" routers for the home. Even enterprise types are getting in on the act now, however, as it becomes clear that the 802.11n standard is pretty much solid.

Bluesocket Inc. was the first to deliver a "pre-n" box for corporate types last year. Nowadays, most every vendor will tell you that they either have an n box or that they are "802.11n-ready." Colubris Networks Inc. , Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR), and Meru Networks Inc. are the latest manufacturers to announce n infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, Meru is claiming that its box has the edge because it can coexist more happily with legacy 802.11 networks and devices. It will be interesting to see how such claims hold up as more 802.11n networks get deployed in offices, warehouses, and what have you.

Nonetheless, such considerations will be important for network managers examining the case for n. Bear in mind that this will likely be the last major WiFi upgrade for a number of years. So it is an important update to get right. (See .11n Thunder and 802.11n Standard Slowly Approaches.)

Enterprise WiFi market leader Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has been quiet on any 802.11n product launch on the corporate side, even as its consumer arm Linksys pumps out the new technology. Of course, Cisco has been fairly conservative about delivering new WiFi technology to its corporate customers. Cisco's size in the market gives it the ability to wait and see on new standards, while startups have to take any opening to get an edge on the competition. Nonetheless, some users might prefer to wait for the big dog in WiFi to bark before they open their wallets.

Mesh: Mesh is expanding in all directions -- it is coming into the home, maybe even the workplace. Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) has a new business-oriented mesh box, while Strix Systems Inc. is following Meraki Networks Inc. with a box designed to improve in-house mesh coverage for muni network users. (See Aruba Meshes Up.)

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Aruba says its Secure Enterprise Mesh software, which will ship in July, can be used with any of its indoor or outdoor access points. Applications for the technology will likely include campus video surveillance, remote building interconnections, sporting arenas and stadiums, rapid-deployment security monitoring, and disaster recovery operations, Aruba says.

The company is stressing its security roots with the new release, promising that data transmissions are encrypted from "client to core" with policies being controlled and set by the Aruba controller.

It is not yet clear how enterprises will take to the mesh box. In theory, it should be fine, since large businesses have been using WiFi and wireless extensions to link campus sites for years. Early reports of coverage and signal problems with meshed muni networks, however, might cause some businesses to think twice.

Strix is trying to address some of these very issues with its EWS 150 mesh box, which it claims has a "long-range connectivity of 54 Mbps and throughput of 24 Mbps." Strix is promoting the appliance as an alternative to traditional wired CPE boxes for homes or buildings.

I suspect that some kind of indoor mesh extension box will be standard issue from all the big vendors by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see how vendors and operators decide to price such kit for the end-users. My take: the cheaper, the better.

New ways to WiFi: As if all that weren't enough, startup Aerohive Networks Inc. has even come up with a back-to-the-future twist on managing enterprise wireless LAN that echoes some of the moves that long-time player Trapeze Networks Inc. was talking about last year. Check out Craig Mathias's comprehensive rundown of the Aerohive system here: Aerohive: Busy Bees.

Could we see a return to fatter, smarter access points in a business that has been thinking distributed for several years now? I don't know yet but it's obvious that there is still fresh thinking yet to be had in the WiFi industry. Expect more news as we gear up for Interop next week.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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