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Reinventing the WLAN Wheel?

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
3/28/2005

A wireless LAN startup, Xirrus Inc., is attempting to reinvent the enterprise 802.11 wheel with a new line of products that integrate a WiFi switch with up to 16 access points (APs) and management software in one round box.

The firm is bucking the trend of shrinking down the size of enterprise APs and switches with its Wireless LAN Array. The box is about the size of an extra-large pan pizza and probably twice as thick [ed. note: did we mention that it's round?].

"I've heard it described as looking like a smoke detector on steroids," quips John DiGiovanni, director of marketing at the firm.

So, what's in the box, man?

"The XS-3900 wireless LAN array is a single device that can deliver near a gigabyte of capacity," says Dirk Gates, CEO of the startup. In practice, this means 12 802.11a (54 Mbit/s over 5GHz) and four configurable radios that run over the 5Ghz or 2.4GHz bands used, respectively, by the b and g specifications.

On the face of it, the concept seems similar to ideas pushed by Vivato Inc. back when it first announced product in 2002 (see Vivato Plans Ambitious WLAN). Vivato, you'll remember, found that its approach wasn't hugely suitable for typical office deployments and now concentrates on unwiring large indoor and outdoor areas.

But Gates says that his company's product doesn't do beam steering to increase capacity; instead it has 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.

Conceptually it actually has more in common with the "single MAC" technology from AirFlow Networks Inc. -- whose products are now being sold through Connect 802(see AirFlow's WLAN Switch Packs a Big MAC). And Meru Networks Inc.'s Air Traffic Control technology, which doesn't actually use the pure single MAC approach, but does coordinate the activities of all APs on the WLAN on the same channel.

Xirrus gets around some of the interference problems that you would natually expect to see when ganging together 16 APs in such a small area: That is, Xirrus treats each radio as part of one big AP with "multiple, non-overlapping channels."

Clearly, the firm is not targeting the branch office with this kind of product. In fact, Gates says, Xirrus is thinking bigger.

"We can really see opportunities to take wireless LAN to the next level in terms of capacity," says Gates, who adds that the firm expects to announce its first partners in April.

Of course, any company that wants to play in the ultra-competitive wireless LAN switch market will need deep packets to get ahead. Gates and much of his management team helped set up Xircom, the Ethernet chip company that was sold to Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) in 2001.

"We can personally fund this to profitability," he claims, adding that the firm could either look to eventually IPO or be acquired.

"We will do whatever makes most sense."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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