The International Engineering Task Force is close to adopting a standard way for wireless switches to communicate with wireless access points, but the jury is out on whether all the manufacturers in the industry will follow suit.
This week the IETF chose Cisco Systems Inc.s LWAPP (Lightweight Access Point Protocol) from a handful of proposals designed to standardize communication among the hardware in a centrally-managed wireless LAN—wherein most of the network intelligence lies in the switch rather than in the access point.
Currently most vendors switches can control only their own access points.
LWAPP was the brainchild of WLAN switch startup Airespace Inc., and became the clear front-runner of the IETF proposals after Cisco bought Airespace in early 2005.
The LWAPP protocol should be ratified by mid-2006, ready to adopt for those companies that choose to adopt it.
"I think this is going to remove barriers to enterprise adoption," said Alan Cohen, senior director of product management in the wireless networking business unit at Cisco in San Jose, Calif., who helped launch the LWAPP initiative when he was an executive at Airespace.
"One of the concerns end users have with adopting wireless LAN controller technologies is the concern of whether theyre buying into something and being stuck with it."
For Cisco, supporting the official standard will mean some security tweaks that the IETF added to the LWAPP proposal.
Vendors are not required to adhere to IETF standards, but for Ciscos competitors, upgrading to LWAPP may be worth it because many of the customers they woo already have an installed base of Cisco products.
Besides the series of access points it acquired from Airespace, Cisco now offers support for LWAPP to its pre-existing Aironet 1130 AG and 1230 AG series of access points, which were originally designed to be managed individually, without a controller.
Cohen said that roughly a third of the access points that Cisco sells now are LWAPP APs.
"We will do it," said Keerti Melkote, co-founder of Aruba Wireless Networks Inc., a WLAN switching startup in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Its not a big deal to us. And if all the Cisco access points go LWAPP, we can start controlling them as well."
Others plan to see whether customers demand LWAPP support. "If customer demand dictates it has to be LWAPP, then well definitely evaluate that," said Chris McGugan, senior director of product management in the wireless infrastructure division of Symbol Technologies Inc. in San Jose, Calif.
And some plan to straddle the fence by supporting their own proprietary protocol in addition to LWAPP.
"Meru will support it as one option and we will definitely continue to support our own flexible AP-controller communication protocol option as well," said Joel Vincent, director of marketing at Meru Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif.
While the industry generally cheers the 802.11 Wi-Fi standards in the IEEE, which often promise faster data rates, analysts have been less excited about the prospect of a communication standard for wireless switches and access points.
"The problem with any standard like this is by definition it will be incomplete," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif.
"Vendors will have to add to it to remain competitive. And thus interoperability will be compromised relatively quickly. We would tell people to remove [adherence to LWAPP] as a requirement in their [requests for proposals from vendors.] If vendors want to support it, fine. If they dont, fine."
For customers, it will depend on whether they need to support a heterogenous mix of access points from a central controller.
"We believe that end-to-end quality of service and security management is easier with a single vendor, so all my organizations are Cisco-based," said John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and Caregroup Health Systems, a Boston-area hospital group.
"However, Im a strong believer in standards, so having a common protocol across all vendors is good for the industry."