Competition in switch-based WLAN market to grow

(see story) and by Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. last year (see story).

The other five vendors don't want their identities disclosed for at least another week because they are in "stealth mode" and are timing their product announcements to get the maximum impact at Networld+Interop, one of the premier networking equipment conferences.

Older Wi-Fi hardware puts all the intelligence technology, such as security and the radio frequency (RF) modules, into a ceiling-mounted piece of hardware called an access point (AP). The newer switch-based architecture reduces the AP to a dumb terminal containing just RF modules, with security and management housed in a rack-mounted switch.

Gemma Paulo, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale, Ariz., said this approach allows enterprises, which must install tens if not hundreds of APs to cover a corporate campus, manufacturing plant or warehouse, to buy relatively inexpensive APs. Companies can then put their money into switches that provide IT managers with more control over their wireless networks than they could achieve with an older-generation "smart" AP.

Aaron Vance, an analyst at Synergy Research Group in Phoenix, said the large number of companies -- many of them start-ups -- that are vying to enter the market represents the continuing boom in the WLAN industry and a sense of untapped opportunities in the enterprise WLAN market. In-Stat/MDR expects sales of WLAN chip sets (used in both APs and clients such as notebook computers) to top 33 million this year, up from more than 20 million in 2002.

Despite this growth, Paulo said the market might not be able to support so many new products as well as older systems, such as the "smart" AP-based systems from Cisco Systems Inc. and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim Corp.

She also said Cisco, the dominant player, could put heavy pressure on its competition by introducing a similar switched-based architecture. Vance said one of the start-ups might be angling for an acquisition by Cisco. Lind Horiuchi, a Cisco spokeswoman, said it's company policy not to comment on its product plans.

Despite the similarities among switched-based wireless LAN systems, Paulo said they aren't all equal, adding that Extreme Networks' entry is a standout. Extreme Networks' launch today is of a product that combines the functionality of a 48-port 10/100 Ethernet wired switch with a system that can manage dumb wireless APs that operate under the 802.11b (11Mbit/sec. in the 2.4-GHz band), 802.11g (54Mbit/sec. in the 2.4-GHz band) and 802.11a (54Mbit/sec. in the 5-GHz band) standards.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Extreme Networks has dubbed this wired/wireless switch approach a "unified architecture," which company President Gordon Stitt said meets all of a company's potential networking requirements. "It's not about wireless LANs or wireless enterprises; it's about a networked enterprise," said Stitt in a statement.

Vipin Jain, vice president of the WLAN access group at Extreme Networks, said all WLAN management, including multiple security protocols, the ability to authenticate users and the ability to detect rogue APs, is built into the switch. The Extreme Networks Summit 300-48 switch sells for $6,495, while a dumb AP sells for $595.

Paulo said WLAN switch-based products from Symbol and those introduced today by Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze Networks lack the tight integration between wired and wireless networks offered by the Extreme Networks system.

But, Vance said, they do provide easier centralized management than older APs, which need an upgrade in firmware if network managers want to beef up security. Trapeze has built its system around a Mobility Exchange switch that features 20 10/100 Ethernet ports and dumb APs that it calls Mobility Points. Mobility Exchange is priced at $9,500 for a starter kit, which includes the switch and two dual-mode (802.11a and 802.11b) APs.

Trapeze is pushing what it calls "Identity Based Networking," based on a suite of management tools that authenticates users and provides various levels of network access privileges. Trapeze has also built in the ability to detect unauthorized users and the presence of rogue APs on the network.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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