Wireless LAN startup promises new approach

Promises to lower costs and ease management

A Silicon Valley startup is about to unveil what it says will be the next generation wireless LAN, one that will sidestep the drawbacks of today's controller-based network architecture.

Aerohive Networks plans to announce its first two products later next month. President and CEO David Flynn won't give the game away beforehand, but in an e-mail exchange he makes clear that he thinks the time is ripe to do away with the costs and the separate management and security structures demanded by WLANs based on thin access points and controllers.

"Traditional controller-based solutions, in the process of solving the issues of [first-generation] autonomous access points, have introduced opaque overlay networks, performance bottlenecks, single points of failure, increased latency and substantially higher costs to enterprise networks," Flynn writes.

Flynn sounds like he could be describing something that's a generation old, when in fact it's been barely five years since the first WLAN switches, now usually called controllers, were introduced. Controllers took over many of the functions of conventional, or thick, access points, allowing new access points to be little more than radios. Network management, authentication and security, radio frequency management, and roaming between access points and subnets were now handled by the controllers.

The performance bottlenecks cited by Flynn seem rare today, but that could change as vendors release starting this year new products based on draft 2 of the IEEE 802.11n high throughput WLAN standard. When configured to take full advantage of the multiple-input multiple output (MIMO) radio technology, 802.11n WLANs will achieve data rates around 300Mbps or even higher, compared to a maximum of 54Mbps today. Depending on the actual traffic and the capacity of the WLAN controllers and the access layer switches, there could be performance issues in some cases.

As for the Aerohive alternative, Flynn will only say that the start-up is building WLAN infrastructure gear that's designed for cost-effective, convenient deployment, but can be scaled to support mid-market to very large enterprise WLANs.

Aerohive has advertised for engineers with experience in embedded Linux, experience in XML, SOAP, and SNMP agent; and in creating algorithms for automatically adjusting radio channels and power levels, for a range of IEEE 802 wireless technologies.

Those requirements suggest a compact Linux-based platform, implemented partly on the access point and partly in backend software that may or may not be on a dedicated Aerohive box. The use of Web services would make it possible to more easily integrate the Aerohive platform with enterprise network management, authentication and security systems.

Without going into details, the company has said the new products will be "optimized" for voice over WLANs. That will mean support for a variety of voice and QoS protocols, support for IP PBXs, and an architecture that can minimize latency and adjust to potentially large numbers of mobile IP phone users moving unpredictably around the enterprise.

One option for Aerohive is some kind of "integrated" switch family , the members of which can process both wired and wireless traffic. These boxes could be installed at either the access or distribution layer, gradually replacing existing LAN switches.

But that would mean Aerohive is betting that enterprises would be willing to gamble on a brand new WLAN entrant to replace part of their incumbent switch vendor's product line. That seems like a long shot for big companies committed to Cisco or another big vendor.

Yet Aerohive's founders and top managers know what big vendors are like. Most of them have a connection with NetScreen, a firewall and VPN vendor, that made inroads with enterprise customers, went public, and was then acquired for a whopping US$4 billion by Juniper. Flynn was part of that team, along with Aerohive co-founder and CTO Changming Liu.

Two other Aerohive board members, who also held top positions at NetScreen, are Aerohive's money men, Feng Deng and Yan Ke, both co-founders of Northern Light Venture Capital. As with Flynn and Liu, both men held senior positions at NetScreen. All four went on to hold senior positions at Juniper. Their earlier backgrounds include stints at Intel, 3Com, Cisco and Nortel.

Gavin Zhu is Aerohive's other co-founder, and currently general manager of the company's China operations. He founded Blootech, a company focused on wireless personal-area networking.

Also backing the venture is Lightspeed Venture Partners, represented on the board by Christopher Schaepe, a 15-year veteran of funding early-stage technology start-ups.

This story, "Wireless LAN startup promises new approach" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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