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Propagate Looks to Clear the Air

Startup Propagate Networks is developing software that allows standard 802.11 radios to change signal strength and channels in order to maximize coverage and minimize interference in a wireless LAN network.

The Acton, Mass.-based company has signed on WLAN chipset designer Atheros Communications and consumer-oriented access-point vendor Netgear Inc. as initial partners.

The big question is whether the young company can persuade enterprise access-point vendors and other chipset vendors to incorporate its code into their products.

The software can be implemented on all the existing flavors of the 802.11 standard (a/b/g), as long as the underlying chipset in the access point supports power control functions, the company says. Some older 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4Ghz) chipsets don't have this feature.

The software enables an access point placed in a wireless LAN network to "listen" to the RF environment and change the signal strength of the radio up or down. It can also switch radio channels to get the best coverage so that it won't interfere with other access points within its active radius (200 to 300 feet, depending on the 802.11 specification).

If the software is used in a "mixed environment" of new multimode radio nodes and older 802.11b access points, then the software tries to get out of the channels the legacy radios use. "We try to pick channels that don't interfere with our noisy neighbors," chuckles Paul Callahan, co-founder and VP of marketing and business development at Propagate.

Some of these signal-strength and channel-hopping capabilities are also available in the WLAN switching systems that are starting to arrive on the market, notably those from Airespace Inc., AirFlow Networks, Aruba Networks Inc., and Trapeze Networks Inc. (See Vivato's Switch Bitch for a lively look at WLAN switching}.)

However, Floyd Backes, CTO and the "major influence" in the development of the software (he also implemented the world's first wire-speed spanning tree Ethernet bridge while at DEC), says there are technical differences between the switch approach and Propagate's approach. "We don't do anything to the MAC [Media Access Controller]," he notes. Most of the switch vendors have developed systems that bring part or all of the MAC functionality back into a centralized box that controls "thin" or "dumb" access points with very little in the way of "intelligence" onboard.

Callahan claims that the Propagate software is complementary to what the switch vendors are doing, because they are also simplifying security and management concerns, while his company is entirely focused on RF. "We expect that we'll be partnering with a lot of those guys," he says.

In fact, analysts say that the company will have to do a lot of partnership deals in order to succeed. The company says it's talking to other vendors but won't name names at the moment.

Ken Furer, analyst at IDC says the company will need to snag chipset vendors like Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Intersil Corp. (Nasdaq: ISIL) if it is to get its software widely distributed in the market.

"They need to be aligned with the chip vendors because they need to be sure that their software works with those products," says Furer.

"They should look at other top five chip vendors," concurs Gartner/Dataquest analyst, Joe Byrne, adding Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) to the list.

However, Byrne feels that the fact that the company is offering a software product might work in its favor. "The key thing is that it’s a low-cost, software-based technology and that's going to minimize barriers to adoption."

"Low-cost" is a key term for Propagate -- a 10-person company that is determined to stay small and keep the burn-rate low. The company says it is funded by angel investors but won't say how much it has in the bank. IDC's Furer figures they have around $2.3 million.

If nothing else, this approach marks an interesting difference from some of the other startups trying to make names for themselves in the WLAN market (see Trapeze Swings $34M and Switch Startups Seek Funding).

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

lrmobile_zephyr 12/4/2012 | 11:53:34 PM
re: Propagate Looks to Clear the Air Here's my question: How can propagate dynamically adjust power and channel from a single access point and have it be effective? After all, in a large enterprise - all of the APs will change channels.

Propagate's solution may work initially in my mom's house since it will deal with her neighbors - who all have 802.11.

WRT to the switch vendors. I have talked to a few of the vendors mentioned and I don't think one of them truly has a solution that actually adjusts to the RF. They all say they do - but it is more from a site planning perspective - not from what is actually happening in my network.

- Z
joset01 12/4/2012 | 11:53:32 PM
re: Propagate Looks to Clear the Air Clearly they're going to have to get this software installed in lots of new access points to have this be in any way effective. That's why they need to bring a lot of partners onboard quick.

I wonder about the effectiveness in the enterprise anyway - even if they have the software installed in lots of access points - constantly changing signal strengh and channel hopping could get confusing for client devices and maybe have some performance issues, no? (I can see I need to do a follow-up!).

They have some client-side software that can maybe help solve some of this, but that means another set of vendors that they may have to license software to. Seems like a challenge...

Re: switch vendors power claims. What's your source for this? Most of them *say* they can adjust RF.

Feel free to email or call (212-925-0020 x155) if you don't want to reveal this on the boards.

Thanks

DJ Unstrung
lrmobile_zephyr 12/4/2012 | 11:53:29 PM
re: Propagate Looks to Clear the Air That was just the impression that I got to talking to all of the vendors at Interop. What are the vendors telling you? They told me that their site planning tools could change the RF, but that required me to have their tools up all the time.

What is your definition of adjusting to RF? Mine is a bit more like propagate, but at enterprise scale. What have the vendors told you? What have you guys tested?

- Z
joset01 12/4/2012 | 11:53:28 PM
re: Propagate Looks to Clear the Air Okay yeah, that's a important clarification, some systems only update when you send down revised site surveys.

Alan Cohen from Airespace has been watching the boards and emailed me to say:

"Airespace is the only enterprise-scale system that dynamically manages the RF"

He points to some testing done by (cough, cough) a rival publication, so you might want to check that out and see what you think.

Here's the link:
http://infoworld.com/article/0...

Now although I've seen most of these systems in operation, I haven't done scientific tests on them (I don't look good in a lab coat and googles). We have talked about doing 802.11 equipment testing, but it would have to be in the same vein as the kit tests as our sister pub, Light Reading, i.e VERY rigorous and VERY independent.

I'd actually be interested getting feedback on this. Would 802.11 equipment tests be an interesting to readers?

Let me know what you think.

DJ Unstrung
lrmobile_zephyr 12/4/2012 | 11:53:25 PM
re: Propagate Looks to Clear the Air I don't know if Airespace is full of bologna or not - but someone should test this stuff. I don't care if it is Unstrung or another magazine.

It is difficult to separate what people are 'claiming' vs. what they are delivering.

-Z
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