Xirrus & the Big Box
The company is one of the few remaining vendors that promotes the concept of using a single 802.11 "God Box" to cover, secure, and manage the office air space. Most other major networking vendors and startups use multiple access points managed via a central switch or controller to provide coverage in the enterprise.
So with its new supply deal and flush with VC cash, is the concept of the wireless God Box undergoing a revival?
Naturally, the startup's director of marketing, John DiGiovanni, thinks so, even as he rejects the idea that Xirrus has much in common with the ghosts of big-box vendors past, like Vivato. (See It's Official: Vivato Winds Down.)
"I wouldn't necessarily call it a 'big box.' I'd characterize this as the next step," he claims. "It is disruptive in the sense that nobody has thought of using a wireless LAN this way before, using all the non-overlapping channels."
The firm offers wireless LAN array products that can deliver up to a gigabyte of capacity using 12 distinct 802.11a (54 Mbit/s over 5GHz) and four configurable b/g radios. These are coupled with a fixed array of directional antennas with a 60-degree beam width and 7dB of gain to offer twice the range of standard 802.11 kit. (See Reinventing the WLAN Wheel?.)
To get around the interference problems that enterprises might expect when ganging together 16 APs in a small area, Xirrus treats each radio as part of one big AP with multiple, non-overlapping channels, which are managed using the controller embedded in the large pizza-shaped Xirrus boxes. [Ed note: Think more extra-large deep dish than a thin crust personal pie.]
DiGiovanni claims that this technology will come into its own as more users try to roll out voice-over-WiFi and other multimedia applications on their current 802.11 networks and start to run out of bandwidth. "The market is in for a rude awakening," he warns.
For the moment, DiGiovanni says that Xirrus is seeing traction in a few key verticals, such as education, healthcare, and retail. The deal with ADC should also give the startup more exposure.
The firm has been self-funded since its inception a couple years ago but has just closed an undisclosed round of funding from August Capital and U.S. Venture Partners . August was the VC firm that first funded Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) when it was a startup.
DiGiovanni says that Xirrus won't disclose the amount of funding it has received, because that is "strategic information."
A little bit o' history To a certain degree, the concept of the WiFi God Box was one of the ideas that helped to kickstart the managed enterprise wireless LAN revolution, even if the some of startups that pushed the idea have languished.
Vivato was the poster-child for the God Box idea and -- along with Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) -- helped to bring the wireless LAN switch to the fore. (See Vivato Plans Ambitious WLAN.)
It soon became clear, however, that the firm's "beam steering" technology was not hugely suited to office environments full of cubicles, partition boards, and other obstacles that diminished the range and efficiency of the radio signals emanating from the box.
By spring 2004, Vivato changed tack and said that it was targeting large-scale WiFi network deployments, both indoor and out, with its WLAN "basestation." (See Vivato Switches Sides.) This wasn't enough to save the firm, however, and it shut its doors at the end of last year.
Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) was also supposed to be getting into the range game after its acquisition of startup Airespace, which had a multi-antenna box called the Intelligent RF Access Point (IRAP) in its portfolio. (See Airespace: MISO Soup.) The IRAP was supposed to be launched in 2005 -- so far, however, the box does not seem to be anything more than slideware. (See Cisco's WiFi Flight Plan.)
Current competition Not all vendors, however, have given up on the big box concept. Like Xirrus, Meru Networks Inc. says that bigger boxes will be necessary to handle dense deployments like trading floors and applications such as voice-over-WiFi.
Meru introduced 12-, 8-, and 4-transceiver "Radio Switch" models last year, the largest of which has a potential maximum throughput of 648 Mbit/s and can support 500 to 600 users, the firm claims. (See Interop Unwired.)
Startup Bountiful WiFi also introduced a long-range box last summer. The firm says its access point, which uses a signal booster and sensitive antennas, has a range of around 1,000 feet, compared to the 300 feet that normal 802.11 access points offer. (See Bountiful's WiFi Harvest.)
Future threats There are also now more ways than ever to set up wireless networks to provide coverage quickly and cheaply.
Wireless LAN mesh networking is being sold by some, notably Cisco, as a good way to cover large-scale campus deployments. Mesh provides large-scale coverage by having multiple standard access points work in cahoots, passing data between radios until it reaches the right AP. But some in the industry question the capability of such networks to handle applications such as VOIP.
WiMax is also being touted by some as a way to provide wide-scale wireless LAN coverage. Xirrus's DiGiovanni thinks that WiMax's day -- if it ever comes -- is still a ways out, since there are already millons of WLAN clients out there and just a few official fixed-WiMax products coming to market.
He also wonders how well WiMax will translate to a world of mobile clients that run on batteries: "The power requirements are still very high, and the battery technology has never really caught up."
Sounds like another good task for a God Box.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung