Next-Gen Challenges for Enterprise WLAN

Without question, suppliers of enterprise wireless gear have been on a tear over the past few years, making significant progress in transforming 802.11 into a truly enterprise-class technology.

But that's only Phase One for a market estimated to be worth $1.3 billion in 2006 and even greater growth potential in the future, finds the latest Unstrung Insider research report WLAN Market Strategies: The Enterprise Challenge. The report examines and evaluates the products and roadmaps of leading wireless local-area network (WLAN) equipment providers, and analyzes vendor strategies for integration with key business applications.

One major finding of the report is that, with the emergence of disruptive new technologies and ever-tightening performance criteria, enterprise demand on WLAN equipment and architectures is escalating. Among the issues facing vendors and enterprises today, and informing product development strategies, are:

Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) and 802.11n Access Points
The adoption of MIMO radios represents the next major disruption in the WLAN market. Bluesocket Inc. was the first vendor to announce plans for a MIMO access point in May 2006, which it expects to start shipping before the end of the year.

Other vendors are waiting for some kind of resolution in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 802.11n task group's standards work before pulling the trigger on MIMO. As things stand, the most aggressive vendors anticipate 802.11n-compliant silicon from their suppliers in March 2007, which should enable a commercial product launch towards the end of the year.

WLAN Architecture Evolution & Distributed Switching
It's a contentious point, but some vendors believe the days of centralized controller architecture, where all traffic is tunneled from the access points to the switch, are numbered. The advent of MIMO and 802.11n, they believe, will increase traffic volumes to the extent that the centralized controller could become a point of network congestion.

That's part of the thinking behind the Colubris Networks Inc. TriPlane Architetcure, the Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) Open Flexible Intelligent Architecture, and the newly announced Trapeze Networks Inc. Smart Mobile architecture, which aim to provide enterprises with the option of tunneling traffic through the controller, or to the switch locally, as required by the particular application or user.

Established vendors such as Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) reject the notion that wireless traffic will overwhelm the processing capabilties of wired network elements.

Unified Switching and Wired/Wireless Integration
Architectures are also evolving as vendors and enterprises revisit the idea of integrated wired and wireless networks. Such integration has been tried several times in the past, and is widely agreed to be desirable at some point in the future.

What form it will take, however, is open to debate. At one level vendors are pitching unified devices, where wireless capability ships with an Ethernet switch. Cisco is leading the renaissance of this idea with its 3750G switch, 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS) recently introduced its Unified WLAN Switch, and Nortel Networks Ltd. has plans of a similar nature.

Suppliers are also pitching controller blades for large Ethernet switches, such as Cisco's WiSM blade for the Catalyst platform. And again, Nortel plans to inroduce a wireless module to its 8600 switch/router platform. These are large enterprise solutions.

Taking an alternative view of WLAN controller functionality is NEC Philips Unified Solutions , which has developed a WLAN controller blade for its IP private branch exchange (PBX) platform, with a view to tighter integration of wireless and voice over IP (VOIP).

Another twist on integration comes from Symbol, which has developed a wireless blade for the IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) BladeCenter platform, which targets server consolidation through a "branch office in a box" concept. Symbol's new WiNG architecture, meanwhile, seeks to centralize and consolidate management of both WLAN and radio frequency ID (RFID) networks.

Integration of WLAN with Business Applications
The business case for WLAN investment is driven by specific vertical requirements and larger vendors, such as Cisco, Siemens, and Symbol, have focused their market development initiatives on tight integration and alignment with specific enterprise applications, from guest access to sophisticated inventory and heathcare applications.

Smaller specialist vendors must pick their targets more carefully. Meru Networks Inc. , for example, is focused on VOIP over WLAN. Aruba, meanwhile, has plotted a path to integrate enterprise mobility with wide-area cellular, and several WLAN vendors are also working with third-party appliance vendors on fixed/mobile integration strategies.

For newer, smaller vendors that haven't yet developed deep-rooted application partnerships and strategies, such as Extricom Ltd. and its WLAN channel blanket approach, and Xirrus Inc. 's WLAN array, it's a case of focusing on the core technology and driving differentiation through superior wireless network performance. Reliable and robust transport is the critical requirement for all mobile enterprise applications, after all.

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

The report, WLAN Market Strategies: The Enterprise Challenge, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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