Trapeze's Wireless Bait & Switch
Regular readers will remember that the Pleasanton, Calif.-based startup hove into view in November 2002 after the company announced that it had scored $16 million in first-round venture funding from Accel Partners and Redpoint Ventures (see Trapeze Swings Into View). Such a large first round certainly got folks in the industry interested in what the firm was working on, but Trapeze is not keen to reveal any technical details.
"We need to keep a lid on it," is what George Prodan, Trapeze's senior VP of marketing, told Unstrung when we called to probe further into the company's plans. "It's not as clear as people would have you believe."
Several sources we've spoken to suggest that Trapeze is one of several startups that will soon emerge with a new class of products, which they're calling wireless LAN "switches."
So what is a wireless LAN "switch"? Basically it’s a new class of device that sits in the wiring closet, between the management console and the wireless access points dotted around the office space, handling tasks like prioritization of available bandwidth, data encryption, and allocation of roaming rights on the wireless network. Network managers who want to handle these tasks today typically have to do so by configuring one access point at a time (assuming the access point itself can even support these features).
Clearly, this task will become impractical as enterprises start to adopt wireless LAN technology en masse, rolling out networks larger than just a few access points. Therefore, several companies have begun to develop systems that centralize the "brainpower" of the system in one place (the "switch"), rather than putting it into each WLAN access point.
The term "wireless LAN switch" was first coined by Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) when it introduced its "Mobius" box last September (see Symbol Unwraps Mobius and Symbol's Cisco Killer?). Symbol called the box a "switch" because it processes and assigns packets on an 802.11 network. It’s actually a bit of a misnomer, because true switches allow bandwidth to be dedicated to each node (or user) on the network. An 802.11 wireless system, however, will never be a true switched architecture, because unless you're the only user on a wireless LAN, you're always going to be sharing some bandwidth with other users in your immediate vicinity. What such boxes do allow you to do is to prioritize the amount of bandwidth that is assigned to specific users on the network. This means a network administrator could ensure that the CEO would always get a greater proportion of available bandwidth than George in accounts (you know, the one who smells a bit funny).
Even though Trapeze's Prodan isn't saying anything specific about his company's products, he is very jazzed about the prospects for the enterprise wireless LAN market. "I think this is the next inflection point of Ethernet," he enthuses. "I like to call it N-base air or X-base air."
Wireless LAN technology has experienced viral growth in the corporate world, Prodan notes, with people often bringing in access points from home to use in the office. "This is the first time since thick cable Ethernet that people have actually installed something themselves because they want that convenience," he concludes.
However, the gear that's available in the shops at the moment is really focused towards the consumer and small office/home office market, Prodan reckons. What's coming next are enterprise-class products. "I truly believe that this is the next bright spot that IT managers will spend their money on," he says.
He's not alone in that opinion. One source who is familiar with the market describes Trapeze as "one of the three startups that have WLAN switches." The others, apparently, are Aruba Networks Inc. and Blackstorm Networks -- two extremely stealthy companies that we'll have more on soon.
The source characterized Trapeze's approach as "old-school startup." That is: hire a lot of people; spend a lot of money; get the product out on the market fast.
However, even though the wireless LAN enterprise systems market is shaping up as a tasty niche for new players, one of our sources sees a familiar name as the real competition. "It's Cisco, Cisco, Cisco," he says.
Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) pretty much has the standard for current access points with its Aironet products. Everyone we have spoken to agrees on this. So far, however, Cisco has added security and access control as part of the feature set for standalone access points. The company has not announced any plans to develop a centrally managed architecture. "As a startup, you need to offer functionality that is far greater than the established companies," says Abner Germanow, wireless LAN research manager at IDC. "Cisco can afford to be a little late to market."
So, when can we expect to see more from Trapeze? The company is having a "small, exclusive gathering to celebrate the creation of Trapeze Networks" in San Jose next week. However, Prodan says the company will not be announcing any products at that event. — Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung