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Trapeze's High Wireless Act

Trapeze Networks Inc., which is officially unveiling its wireless LAN switch product line today, believes it has a year to make good in the market after its 802.11 box starts shipping in June (see Trapeze Switch Swings Out).

"We've got a twelve-month window," George Prodan, senior VP of marketing at the firm told Unstrung. He expects that over that period it will become clear which companies will dominate the WLAN switch market and which won't.

"The leaders will be anointed and the losers will be shot," Prodan explains [ed. note: seems a bit strong]. He's hoping that Trapeze, which has $16 million in funding along with an executive team culled from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), Redback Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: RBAK), and other big-name firms, will be among the chosen few, despite the high level of competition in this emerging market (see WLAN Switch Shakeout Looms?).

Trapeze's products are similar in concept and execution to those being offered by rivals such as Airespace Inc and Aruba Networks Inc. In general terms, this means that Trapeze's main product is a box that will handle centralized management and security functions for a network of access points, which themselves have been shorn of most of the intelligence that used to be exhibited by standalone, fat or smart access points. The idea is that IT managers will find a system that can be managed from one central point a lot easier to run than a network of access points that each need individual attention.

The firm has a 20-port Layer 2 switch (which it is calling the Mobility Exchange) that supports wired devices and its own wireless LAN access points (Mobility Points) or those from third-party vendors. Its three different "lightweight" access points, which resemble smoke detectors, can support 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) or 802.11b (11-Mbit/s, 2.4GHz) or both at the same time.

Trapeze also has software (Ring Master) that can help resellers or IT managers design a WLAN deployment from the floor plan of a building. If the customer decides to use Trapeze's access points in this deployment, then it can adjust the signal strength of the radios to improve coverage or crank the RF back if it is interfering with the signal from nearby access points.

Dan Simone, VP of product development at Trapeze and one of the founders of the company, reckons that "most of the magic" is in the systems management software the company has developed. The concept behind this software is that with the advent of wireless enterprise networking, IT managers can no longer control the network via static port connections. Instead, because people and devices move about, the system and the administrators need to able to manage a movable identity on the network. Things like access rights and quality-of-service levels can be linked to identity, to make it possible for a user to gain access to consistent services wherever they roam on the network.

Most of these management concepts are supported in other wireless LAN products today from a diverse range of vendors like Bluesocket Inc., Colubris Networks Inc., and Vernier Networks Inc. (see Case Study: McGill University). But Trapeze may be the first to bundle the management capabilities into a LAN switch system -- and that's something that has drawn plaudits from industry analysts.

"Trapeze really understands what enterprise wireless LAN networking is all about," enthuses Michael Howard, principal analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. "They're selling wireless LAN as a system, and I think that's going to be what IT managers are going to want to do. They are going to want to look at it all as one system."

"I think as far as the systems that are currently out there go, Trapeze's functionality is pretty strong," says Meta Group Inc. analyst Chris Kozup. "One of the things they understand better than most is really supporting wired features as well as wireless."

However, Kozup cautions against getting too caught up in the Trapeze marketing circus. "They have the most polished presentation of any of the startups I've seen," he notes. "But all that means nothing if they can't compete and can't sell. Now that they've launched, they've got to come out with strong partnerships and strong customers. That's what I'm looking to see -- how all of these startups do, actually selling this stuff."

Prodan says Trapeze has five customers. One is "a large CRM company in Pleasanton, Calif." Prodan wouldn't name that company, but there's one obvious candidate: PeopleSoft Inc. (Nasdaq: PSFT).

As far as competition goes, Trapeze's Simone has no doubts about his number one rival: "It's Cisco. I don't know about the startups yet, as I haven't examined their systems."

Prodan says that some of other big names entering the market, like Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR), don't worry him as much (see Extreme Hatches Switch Surprise). "They still have seven years invested in 'Extreme-ware,' " he claims. "They'd have to alter all their code base to do we can do." (Note, Prodan used to work as VP of marketing at Extreme.) Recently, sources told Unstrung that Extreme has already been working on its switch project for over a year, but Prodan literally laughs this off: "We who actually worked there know better."

Talk of venture funding brings fewer guffaws from Trapeze. Questions about the burn rate of the 95-employee company -- already a hot topic for industry gossip -- bring somewhat vague responses. "You need to do things differently in these times," clarifies Prodan.

The company got its first round of VC from Accel Partners and Redpoint Ventures in April 2002. "We will raise a series B round this year," says Prodan.

For, as Prodan himself acknowledges, winning in this market isn't going to be easy for a startup, and the next twelve months will be a tightrope walk -- not a cakewalk -- for the Trapeze team.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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