Wireless LANs Meet Blade Servers

IBM, Symbol and Aruba bring blade efficiency to wireless networks.

As IT managers continue to look for ways to lower costs and increase efficiency, IBM, Symbol Technologies Inc. and Aruba Networks Inc. are introducing new wireless LAN management products that bring the efficiency of the blade architecture to the problem of managing far-flung employees.

IBM and Symbol are teaming up on a blade that brings WLAN radios and management capabilities to IBMs BladeCenter chassis, officials said. Called the WS5120 Wireless Switch, it is essentially Symbols WS5100 WLAN switch in the form of a blade rather than a box; it controls and manages as many as 48 of Symbols thin access points from a central location. It will be sold through IBMs Global Services division.

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"This begins to cross an interesting line that hasnt really been crossed before," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "We typically havent seen a server box deliver networking."

Each BladeCenter chassis can hold as many as 14 of the WLAN blades, so, in theory, a chassis could support up to 672 access points.

"Blades, in general, have been the fastest-growing segment of the server market," said Uday Watwe, program director for xSeries servers and BladeCenter Industry Solutions at IBM, in Somers, N.Y. Watwe said that IBM has no immediate plans to create blades with WLAN hardware companies other than Symbol. "We have been getting requests from customers to support not just wired but also wireless infrastructure," said Watwe.

Blade servers house computing power in vertically stored blades rather than in stacked boxes. They are more expensive than traditional server hardware, but the dense form factor allows for more processing power in a smaller footprint, and the fact that they share power and memory means fewer cables.

"I hadnt ever thought about using a compute blade slot for network management, but if youre looking to save space, it would make sense," said Kelly Carpenter, IT manager at the Genome Sequencing Center, in St. Louis, which is a BladeCenter customer. Carpenter added, though, that his team already has committed to a WLAN controller from Cisco Systems Inc.

The market leader for the overall WLAN hardware market, Cisco has been encroaching on Symbols lead in the WLAN switch market since entering the space with the acquisition of Airespace Inc. a year ago. Cisco officials declined to comment on whether the company will team up with a server company on a WLAN blade, although a spokesperson pointed out that Cisco has existing wireless business partnerships with both Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM, most recently in the mesh networking space.

IBMs biggest competitor in the blade server market is HP and its BladeSystem. HP has no immediate plans for a WLAN blade, said Eric Krueger, a spokesperson for the Palo Alto, Calif., company.

Meanwhile, Symbol is looking at ways to marry its WLAN business with businesses for which it is better known. Symbol is the market leader for both bar-code scanners and RFID (radio-frequency identification) readers, according to Venture Development Corp., a research company in Natick, Mass.

Building RFID management into its wireless switches "is something weve entertained," said Anthony Bartolo, vice president and general manager for the wireless infrastructure division at Symbol, in Holtsville, N.Y. "Its just another data capture methodology."

At the same time, Symbol has engineers in its labs investigating security issues facing RFID.

"Most people look at RFID as an extension of our bar-code business, but the biggest challenge with RFID is the RF side," said Lou Steinberg, Symbols chief technology officer. "Reading ID tags turns out to be a hostile RF environment. People want to know how to secure the information in a tag. These are the same issues that Wi-Fi faced initially."

Steinberg said the company also is addressing the issue of broken RFID tags. The tags come in giant spools and can be damaged in shipment.

"The yield on the silicon is improving," Steinberg said. "But if you dont get a good connection between the silicon and the antenna, the bond is useless." The company is working to catch bad tags by building interrogators into the readers, he said.

Meanwhile, WLAN switch vendor Aruba is moving into the retail market with the introduction of new management hardware at the National Retail Federation conference in New York this week.

The Aruba 200 Mobility Controller, meant for branch offices, includes a Gigabit Ethernet interface and can support as many as 100 users and six access points. It supports site-to-site VPN connections and has a variety of intrusion prevention features, said Aruba officials in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Aruba also is introducing the Mobility Management System, which can control multiple remote WLAN controllers from a central location, officials said. This is the first Aruba management appliance to come with RAID storage. Customers also can buy the management software and put it on a Red Hat Inc. Red Hat Linux appliance themselves, officials said.

As for WLAN blades, Aruba officials said they are exploring the idea with French telecommunications giant Alcatel S.A., which has both an OEM and cross-licensing agreement with Aruba. "There will be Aruba technology on a blade," said Keerti Melkote, co-founder of Aruba.

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