Wireless LAN Class Wars

Given 802.11's roots as a home networking technology, it is hardly surprising that wireless LANs arrived in the workplace in a rather messy fashion – with people even bringing in consumer-grade access points from home to connect wirelessly to corporate networks.

But, with more and more companies looking into installing 802.11 networks on their premises, Unstrung thinks its about time to get some class into the 802.11 act: Business-class, that is.

What we're trying to nail down is what exactly constitutes wireless LAN equipment that is suitable for large-scale implementations in a corporate environment, not for the lovable hippy coffee shop that just wants wireless to be free for the people, maaaaan.

Take a spin 'round the site and you'll see how we're going about this: Look at this month's poll; our latest report; and the new edition of Unstrung Insider. We think that getting the business-class stamp of approval means delivering equipment that is reliable, easy to upgrade, and can talk to the rest of your network.

Of course, some folks (who should probably know better) will still try and sell you the bargain-basement stuff.

For instance, Unstrung recently published a story quoting a VAR in Europe that is selling customers consumer-oriented access points from the likes of D-Link Systems Inc. because it is considerably cheaper than buying the equivalent enterprise kit from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and does "pretty much the same thing." (see VARs Shop for Wireless)

This is probably true – for now – but doing enterprise wireless LAN implementations on the cheap with SOHO kit is really not the way to create an 802.11 network that is built to last. If you're concerned with implementing a network that is easy to manage, reliable, scaleable, and secure, then you really have to look at what enterprise-class equipment is available now. And try to understand how the definition of that term could change as 802.11 networks become more of a managed environment, one that is tightly integrated with your wired network.

A $150 access point is fine for home use, and hey, go ahead and install them in the office if you just want to try out wireless access. See if we care. However, a $150 access point shouldn't be part of your rollout plan if you want to install more than – let's say – five APs in your office.

Why not? Because you don't know how scaleable they are or what kind of stress-testing has been done; they are unlikely to support standard features like Power-over-Ethernet (POE); and there's no guarantee that these APs will be able to talk to the rest of your network.

Ease of management is going to become a particularly big issue as WLAN networks grow. It's bad enough having to pop the top on six separate access points and manually change the channel settings, let alone 60 or 6,000. This is why the access points you buy now need to have standard management information base (MIB) interfaces that can communicate with the rest of the network via SNMP. Then, as the network grows you can use management hardware from the likes of Bluesocket Inc. or software from Wavelink Corp. to automatically send updates to your entire network, rather than fussing round with a step ladder trying to get at that pesky box in the ceiling.

In fact, the consensus among most of the interested parties Unstrung has spoken to is that there are only three or four companies making real enterprise-class access points that are readily available today: Cisco, Proxim Corp. (Nasdaq: PROX), and Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) make the tools you can trust, according to those in the know (no surprise that they just happen to be the top three enterprise WLAN vendors).

There is, however (as regular readers will be aware), a whole class of devices coming on the market called wireless LAN switches. These systems combine stripped-down access points with a wireless switch that is typically installed in the wiring (or should that be wireless?) closet. These boxes centrally deal with many of the security and management concerns that would typically be dealt with at the access point. And because the switches incorporate system-level silicon that is traditionally installed on the access points themselves, these new boxes can also control features such as radio signal strength.

All this should make life easier for the humble network manager, but it does add a new layer of complexity to the question of what constitutes business class in the wireless LAN switch world – because new interfaces need to be defined in order to standardize how access points are controlled by these switches.

This is happening now. Startups like Airespace Inc., Aruba Networks Inc., Chantry Networks Inc., Legra Systems Inc., and Trapeze Networks Inc. are either actively involved with, or at least supporting, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)'s Lightweight Access Point Protocol (LWAPP) (see Startups Back LWAPP).

But such efforts do leave the IT buyer with one question: Should they stick with established vendors until LWAPP or some other standard is established, to avoid the risk of being left with a non-standard system? Or does the deeper level of network control available via these systems compensate for the fact that you basically have to buy an entire system from one vendor to really get those management features?

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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