Carrier WiFi

Moto: Cut the Wires

Forget those bulky Cat5 cables and pesky RJ-45 ports, because the time has come for the all-wireless network, at least according to Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT).

Motorola didn't invent this idea, but it's one of the few saying the ability to go purely wireless is here now (although major rival Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) has talked up the concept in the past). At recent media events held in Boston and San Francisco, Motorola executives stated their case, basing it on the rise of 802.11n and the advent of new reliability techniques.

Yes, it's a marketing message. But it's also Motorola's chance to stand out against a crowd of second fiddles battling Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), which leads in sales of wireless LAN gear.

"What Cisco is to wired, we think we could be for wireless," says Sujai Hajela, Motorola's vice president of enterprise wireless LAN.

Just to be clear: Motorola isn't advocating that anyone replace their wired LANs (although they've had at least one customer do that). Gartner Inc. analyst Michael King notes that the idea is mostly being applied to newly built offices, or cases where a company's networking gear of choice is being discontinued.

Motorola has another case in mind. Because network expansions will probably use 802.11n as an access medium, why not use 802.11n for hooking up aggregation switches and wiring closets, too?

"We're not proposing that companies start ripping out wires. But as you implement 802.11n, you do not have to grow this pile of wires," Hajela says.

By Motorola's count, the result would save an enterprise a lot of money. The company gives an example of one greenfield network where wired Ethernet would incur recurring costs of $88 per user per year in maintenance and support, versus $12.51 for a wireless network.

Moreover, a company fully exploiting a wireless LAN mesh might be able to cut down on the number of switches it needs, since it theoretically wouldn't have to wire up as many connections.

Motorola cites one customer that used 12 of Cisco's Catalyst 6500 boxes as an distribution layer, the last layer feeding into the business's small network core. By using wireless hookups for most of its network, including that distribution layer, the enterprise found it could do without six of those 6500s.

Helping boost the trend is the fact that telephones are going increasingly wireless or are being replaced with PC-based alternatives. It's one part of the network that doesn't need much prodding to go wireless. "We're at a point in time where the market is already penetrated," Gartner's King says.

To complete the picture, an office could even use a wireless connection to hook its network to the outside world. Eventually, that could be WiMax; for now, 802.11n could be an option.

None of this could be pulled off, on any large scale, without 802.11n. The protocol's higher bandwidth means the all-wireless network can be built with fewer access points than before -- which lowers equipment costs and management difficulties.

That's got other wireless vendors thinking along similar lines, although not as aggressively as Motorola. "You could say that some of them are ahead of the market," King says. "They've got the story set up for the verticals but without experience in those markets."

So, the bandwidth is there to make an all-wireless network possible. Motorola still has to counter the two issues that always come up with WiFi: reliability and security.

Motorola says it can get around a lot of reliability problems with its adaptive access point technology, announced in February. (See Motorola Gets Adaptive.) The technology lets an enterprise manage its 802.11 network, including branch offices, from a centralized point. It also supports a mesh topology, so traffic can be steered in another direction if one access point goes down.

And Motorola is outright dismissing the security question. The 802.11 network can be infused with just as much security as a wired network, Hajela says; moreover, wired networks are notorious for not having security activated. In summary, Motorola claims a WiFi operation wouldn't be any less secure than the networks being used now.

Others in wireless question whether Motorola's got all the answers, though.

"It's difficult to see an office that is purely wireless. You can't do wireless without wired," says Chris Kozup, Cisco's manager of mobility products.

One question is how much bandwidth the aggregation layer would take up. "There's only so much spectrum in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands," Kozup says. "You quickly run into scalability limitations when you're doing that."

Kozup and others also point out that an all-wireless enterprise would probably have to rely on sending data across multiple hops between access points.

"Inter-AP hops are bad, degrading the performance often 50 percent or more," says David Callisch, director of marketing for Ruckus Wireless Inc.

Ruckus gets around that problem with its directional-antenna gear, which it says is a a better alternative to just relying on the multiple-input, multiple-output nature of 802.11n. "Ultimately there’s no reason why an all WiFi enterprise shouldn’t exist," Callisch says.

Kozup contends the all-wireless idea is better suited for a remote branch offices. Networks there are subject to frequent changes or even relocation, so having fewer wires to plug in seems attractive, he says.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to the Tower Technology Summit, a conference focused on the infrastructure that drives technical innovation in the wireless industry. Collocated with the industry's largest wireless event, CTIA, in Las Vegas, April 1-2, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.

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