Vivato's Switch Bitch
Startup Vivato has entered the 802.11 wireless LAN switch market with a bold claim: It says it has the only real WLAN switch on the market.
Rival vendors, like Aruba Networks Inc., Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL), and Trapeze Networks Inc. are misleading the market by claiming to sell switches, says Phil Belanger, Vivato’s VP of marketing.
Belanger says that his competitors’ products are really just hubs with some added management smarts.
This isn’t just semantics. It’s important. In fact, it’s really important, and companies and service providers thinking of installing this equipment better get their heads ‘round the difference fast [ed. note: so wake up at the back!].
A brief history lesson covering the LAN market as a whole shows why. So turn up your Flock of Seagulls – because our journey starts in the 80s.
- Back then, the first Ethernet LANs were simple animals. The administrator snaked a thick cable around the office and attached anyone that wanted into the network via drop-cables.
- Worked fine for a while, then some smarty-pants developed the idea of attaching people to the network in a “star” configuration, making it easier to add or subtract folk from the network by plugging them in and out of the hub.
- As networks got bigger (and bigger, and bigger) companies like Cabletron (now Cablegone) and Synoptics hit upon the idea of adding intelligence (or “smarts”) to these hubs, to make it easier to manage and configure them. These smart hubs were also described as “shared media” hubs – a moniker acquired because network users, well, shared the media (or the network) and, thus, shared the bandwidth on that network. In other words, the more people on the network, the less bandwidth each one got. And eventually, as this Ethernet thing really started to get popular, they got very little bandwidth indeed.
- In the early 90s a little company called Kalpana came along with a solution to this bandwidth sharing problem: a LAN “switch” – so called because it “switched” traffic among users, or departments, allowing companies to dedicate capacity to the people who needed it. It was a very cool idea, everybody jumped on it (apart from Synoptics, Cabletron, IBM Corp., and Madge Networks, to their regret), and it basically changed the local area networking market. Forever.
Vivato’s point is that its product is the first equivalent of the Kalpana switch for WLANs, because it’s the first WLAN switch that actually improves performance (we’ll explain how in a bit).
Vivato claims that the so-called switches from Aruba and others are actually equivalent to those “smart hubs” of Ethernet days. In other words, they improve management by acting as centralized control boxes, allowing the system administrator to control the security, access rights, and available bandwidth management parameters for an entire network from one location. But they don’t increase network capacity.
"They support a switched Ethernet, shared wireless LAN architecture. We don't feel these are WiFi switches at all," says Belanger.
So why would Aruba, Symbol, Trapeze, and their ilk call a hub a switch if it ain’t? Because switches are a lot sexier than “smart hubs.”
If Belanger is right, companies like Trapeze are guilty of misleading marketing. And it would be difficult for them to claim that they are doing it by accident. In fact, one of Trapeze’s founders (and funders) is Larry Blair – former VP of marketing at Kalpana, and the man who invented the term “LAN Switch.” Further, its current VP of marketing is none other than George Prodan, best know for his work at Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR), a LAN switch pioneer. [ed. note: this déjà vu is making my head spin!].
So why is the Vivato kit different? The company, which was originally founded two years ago to develop fixed wireless products, has applied some wide-area know-how to the problem of 802.11 networks, ending up with a system that uses radar antenna technology to focus and lengthen an 802.11 signal between the box and a WLAN client.
Unlike conventional access points, which just blanket the entire area around them with signal (sometimes known as "electrosmog" in the cellular world), the Vivato switch uses a phased array antenna system that locks onto the signals from individual users and switches among them to provide connectivity (and capacity) for each one.
Vivato says that with its approach a single box can provide wireless coverage for an entire floor – as well as handling security, access, and bandwidth provision tasks, just like the other products (see Vivato Plans Ambitious WLAN).
The initial 802.11b box from Vivato will support three WLAN streams, providing a total throughput of up to 33 Mbit/s. This will allow the box to support up to 150 users and provide coverage of up to 100x100 meters when it is installed indoors, it says. If the box is attached to an outside wall of a building, then it can provide coverage for several floors, and the maximum range can actually increase to several miles.
However, the company is still not revealing what it will charge for its first switch, and this could prove to be an issue if it’s significantly more expensive than standalone access points, or those products from Trapeze et al. “We'll be announcing pricing – and, hopefully, customers – in mid-February," says Belanger. In addition to corporate customers, Vivato hopes to sell versions of the product to those looking to cover large public spaces, like conference centers and football stadiums.
Chris Kozup, senior research analyst, global networking strategies, at Meta Group Inc. thinks Vivato is actually trying to sell a product to the enterprise that was originally intended to provide wireless access in public spaces. "This looks like it's mostly for the hotspot market to me," he says. This is a funny coincidence, because one of the other players in the space – Trapeze – appears to have pulled the same switch (pardon the pun, but see Trapeze’s Switch Switcheroo for more info on its mid-stream horse-leaping activities).
Indeed, one of the potential problems with the Vivato approach is that it could prove expensive to install one big box rather than building out a network piecemeal, adding a few access points at a time. "Yes, it is expensive," says Belanger [ed.note: bet he didn’t mean to say that!]. However, he notes that once the box is installed there will be no additional network costs until the unit reaches the limits of its capacity. The forthcoming 802.11b box is a small-scale unit, according to Vivato, which intends to introduce higher-capacity boxes over time.
However, although he says the switch is definitely intended for enterprise customers, Belanger does admit that the company's switches might be better suited to greenfield applications, rather than situations where there are already a lot of access points installed. Still, the company has set up the system so that existing hotspots can be connected to the box and extra coverage may be provided in "dead zones." Meta's Kozup also questions whether security-conscious network administrators will be happy to install large WLAN boxes on the outside of corporate buildings. It is a valid point – they could be a red flag to so-called "wardrivers," sad losers who drive around hunting for wireless LAN network signals. Vivato claims to have plenty of additional security features installed in its box to help guard against such network break-ins [ed. note: Hand grenade? Spiked pit? Rottweiler stuffed into switch casing?].
We asked Kozup whether he believes that Vivato has created the one, true, wireless switch. "It's all a semantics issue really, isn't it?" he philosophizes. "In the end, customers will choose the box that suits their needs.”
— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung We're interested in your views on this hot topic. Please take a moment to participate in Unstrung's January poll: WLAN Switches: The Brains Behind 802.11?.