Last year, the WLAN industry was divided mostly between vendors that sell central switches and scaled-down access points and those that keep intelligence in so-called fat access points. This year, the lines are less clearly defined. In interviews at the NetWorld+Interop show in Las Vegas earlier this month, eWEEK Senior Editor Carmen Nobel spoke with industry executives who come at 802.11-based wireless LANs from different angles to see what the future holds.
In the hot seat were Craig Barratt, CEO of WLAN chip-set manufacturer Atheros Communications Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif.; Bill Rossi, vice president and general manager of the wireless networking business unit at Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif.; William Nuti, CEO of Symbol Technologies Inc., of Holtsville, N.Y., and a Cisco veteran; and Don LeBeau, another former Cisco executive who recently took the helm as CEO of WLAN switching startup Aruba Wireless Networks Inc., also based in San Jose.
Where does your company stand on “fat” versus “thin” APs [access points]?
Barratt: [Whether] you put our chip into the thin AP or the fat AP, its the same chip.
Nuti: Were not religious about customer requirements. If you want a thick access point, we have that. And if you want a switching architecture, we have that. We essentially tune our wireless infrastructure for mobile deployment.
LeBeau: Centralized versus decentralized is the way to say it. Decentralized is disruptive to the wireless network, and its labor-intensive and insecure. Cisco customers are going to Aruba because they want security.
Rossi: I think its more a matter of bolt-on versus integrated. We integrate.
Cisco recently introduced the Wireless LAN Services Module [WLSM] blade for its Catalyst 6500 switches [code-named Screaming Eagle], which enables roaming among up to 300 access points. While they have no immediate plans for thin access points, this does put Cisco in the WLAN switching space. What does this mean for the industry?
Rossi: My belief is that large customer deployments are just beginning. The fact that we have deployed at this scale lets customers move on to the next step. Were early in the market adoption of big wireless LANs, and the WLSM is going to address that.
Barratt: Its clearly a shot across the bow of the switching companies.
LeBeau: Screaming Eagle solves some of the problems they had. But Cisco tends to look at wireless the way IBM looked at TCP/IP back in the early days of routers—as [just] another data link. We see 802.11 as a fundamentally different way to look at users. Our best audiences are people who have already deployed wireless with one of the incumbents because they know the pain.
Nuti: Wireless is not an extension of the wired network. The way you network the edge is changing. Its no longer defined by the length of your wires. Its where your people are.
The fixed broadband technology known as WiMax is receiving a lot of publicity, thanks largely to the marketing efforts of Intel Corp. Whats your take on WiMax?
Barratt: Honestly, were skeptical about how fast it will be adopted. Carriers are—well, I could say “disciplined,” but, more honestly, theyre slow. And its a carrier technology.
Rossi: There are no specific product plans for WiMax. Its not about the technology; its about the carriers. The question is always, What is a successful business market that allows the broadband market to scale? Wi-Fi was clear to us.
LeBeau: WiMax is an emerging technology you have to be aware of, but nobodys writing any checks.
Whos your biggest competitor right now?
Barratt: In the laptop space, its Intel. In the retail space, Broadcom [Corp.]. Were pretty dominant in the enterprise space.
Rossi: Maybe one will emerge. If its retail, it will be Symbol. In the traditional horizontal enterprise, its less about competition and more about education [of potential customers].
Nuti: There are really two players in wireless. Theres the No. 1 company [Cisco] coming from a networking point of view, and [we are] coming at it from mobility.
LeBeau: Cisco. … Certainly, they do more revenue.