Optical/IP Networks

WLAN Switches Face Integration

Could this be the beginning of the end for wireless LAN switches?

Early this week, NextHop Technologies Inc. announced its UNS 4.0 software release, based partly on technology acquired from Legra last year. (See NextHop Launches UNS 4.0, NextHop Leaps on Legra, and NextHop Reveals WLAN Plan.) The software lets systems designers merge a WLAN switch into a regular Ethernet switch, possibly presaging the end of standalone WLAN appliances.

The idea makes sense, especially considering the long-term future of the wireless LAN itself. In NextHop's press release, Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias predicts the wired and wireless LANs will merge into one big happy "unified" LAN. Enterprises would presumably want this LAN run by one type of unified switch.

NextHop aims to kick-start the trend by letting low-cost manufacturers build unified switches quickly. UNI 4.0 has been in the hands of Taiwanese vendors for "several months" and could result in switches available in the first quarter of 2006, says Bob Schoettle, NextHop vice president of product marketing.

Meanwhile, (Nasdaq: CSCO) has already discussed mashing WLAN switch products, most of which it acquired along with Airespace, into routers. Other OEMs are dabbling in wireless as well -- Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR) and Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY), for example, have their mitts on the technology. (See Cisco Lays Out Airespace Plans, Extreme's Second Wind , and Foundry Enhances Kit.)

"Starting next year, it's just going to be expected that when you buy a switch, it's going to have wireless in it," says Chris Richardson, a NextHop product manager.

WLAN switch vendors aren't hitting the panic button yet.

For starters, not all the OEMs are taking Cisco's route. Extreme initially talked about fully integrating a WLAN switch but is now said to have pulled back from that approach, at least for now. And others are integrating just pieces of the technology, and doing so in conjunction with wireless vendors. Enterasys Networks Inc. (NYSE: ETS), (NYSE/Toronto: NT), and 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS) have licensing agreements with Trapeze Networks Inc., while (Nasdaq: JNPR) has teamed up with Meru Networks Inc. (See Trapeze's Partner Mania and Meru Partners With Juniper.)

"Their top priority is getting the low-hanging fruit in the wireless space," and full integration isn't yet hanging so low, says Bruce Van Nice, vice president of marketing for Trapeze.

Keep in mind, too, that most wireless LANs are added to an installed network. Few IT departments will want to rip out their switches just to add "integrated" wireless LAN; rather, they'll continue adding WLAN appliances separately.

Wireless vendors also point to the firewall, a function that's long been in process of getting absorbed into routers. "Ten years later, you still have driving firewall companies, because things they're addressing, like application acceleration, are still evolving," says Joel Vincent, director of marketing for Meru.

Firewalls have gotten integrated when it comes to small routers and small-business equipment, and the same might hold true for NextHop's approach. But Vincent contends larger setups -- getting into the thousands of access points -- might still need the added intelligence and features that WLAN switches have developed during the past couple of years. In particular, NextHop's radio management and security might not be up to the task, he says.

NextHop disagrees, noting that UNS 4.0 offers security compatible to what's on the wireless network. The software also includes roaming capabilities -- a combination of Legra and NextHop technologies -- that would allow voice calls to hop between access points as a user moves around. This feature could be expanded to hand off to the cellular network as well, Schoettle says.

Eventually, though, key technologies -- the handling of real-time traffic, or the testing of RF channels, for instance -- likely will become standard commodities. At that point, the WLAN switch could be completely integrated into a switch/router, "but it's going to be a long time," Vincent says.

NextHop's UNS 4.0 is slated for general availability on Dec. 20.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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