Ciscos at the (WLAN) Switch

The top vendor serving enterprise WLAN hardware customers debuts 802.11g products while keeping its eye on startups.

For a company that doesnt consider itself a WLAN switching vendor, Cisco Systems Inc. has a lot of pull in the industry. Ask any company vying for customers in the new wireless LAN switch space who the chief competitor is, and the answer is always Cisco. Although Cisco doesnt sell WLAN switches, the San Jose, Calif., networking company is the top vendor serving enterprise WLAN hardware customers, which are the target market for switching startups.

"Cisco you run into all the time because theyre everywhere," said Paul Debeasi, a spokesman for Legra Systems Inc., a WLAN switching startup in Burlington, Mass. Startups such as Legra and competitors such as Aruba Wireless Networks Inc., Airespace Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc. rarely run into one another when wooing customers, mainly because the enterprise market is bigger than the enterprise demand for WLAN switches.

"Its not big in the sense [that] everyones buying," Debeasi said. "Its big in terms of [the fact that] there are a lot of enterprise customers."

Startups acknowledge the lack of demand.

"The rate of adoption is running at a less aggressive pace than we planned," said Mike Banic, vice president of marketing at Trapeze, in Pleasanton, Calif. Banic said enterprise adoption takes a long time because, unlike other technology decisions, wireless deployment usually requires sign-off from a companys CIO.

Still, to hold on to its widespread enterprise customer base, Cisco has kept an eye on the management features that these startups are offering.

Last week, Cisco announced several additional features to its WLAN management software, following up on the promise of Structured Wireless Aware Networks, which the company announced earlier this year.

"The point we made then was that wed offer the functionality that the so-called WLAN switch vendors are calling unique to their infrastructures," said Ron Seide, product line manager for the wireless networking division at Cisco. "[As a] fulfillment of that promise, were announcing the Wireless LAN Solution Engine 2.5."

WLSE Version 2.5 offers integrated rogue access point detection, radio- frequency interference detection and assisted—but not automated—site survey software.

Trapeze, for its part, at the end of the month will start shipping new software for its Mobility Exchange WLAN switch.

The software will include support for both Wi-Fi Protected Access and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). (Cisco will not support AES in its products until next year.)

Trapeze has also added a feature that lets IT managers designate Trapeze access points as full-time "sentries," or rogue access point detectors. In the past, administrators could schedule the access points to switch between access point and sentry functions for short intervals throughout the day, but customers demanded full-time sentries, said officials at Trapeze.

Cisco, for the most part, is focusing on its core competency: hardware. Along with the new version of WLSE, the company last week unveiled client adapters and access points. The product launch included new versions of Ciscos Aironet 1100 and 1200 Series access points that support the IEEE 802.11g standard. Available now, they cost $599 and $899, respectively. The 802.11b and 802.11a/b versions of the products cost the same.

The Aironet 1100 supports a single radio, while the Aironet 1200 supports two, and both are upgradable, meaning customers can switch to a new wireless protocol without having to replace all the hardware. An 802.11g upgrade kit costs $149.

"Never again will you have to forklift-upgrade your access points," said John Halamka, CIO of CareGroup Healthcare System, in Boston, which is a large Cisco customer.

Cisco is also introducing new client cards that support multiple WLAN protocols, which will ship next quarter. The Cisco Aironet IEEE 802.11a/b/g CardBus costs $169; a similar PCI card costs $249, officials said.

While the company plans to continue manufacturing client cards, Cisco depends largely on third parties for client-side support. In March, the company launched the Cisco Compatible Extensions Program, in which Cisco provides free licenses for WLAN technology that includes security, management and roaming features not yet found in IEEE standards but that Cisco has added to its access points.