WiFi Takes Center Stage at Interop

Reporter's Notebook: Wireless LAN vendors took center stage at Interop Las Vegas 2010 to announce new WLAN products and technologies. While product vendors argued about the best way to do things and looked ahead to future technology advances, implementers wanted best practices for the present.

Despite the noticeable absence of several key WLAN-only companies from Interop Las Vegas 2010, wireless LAN product and technology announcements took center stage twice at the annual conference and exposition.

Closing out Interop's first-day keynote addresses, Brett Galloway, senior vice president of Cisco's Wireless, Security, and Routing Technology Group, introduced the networking giant's new CleanAir technology. Extending his presentation about borderless networks and the need to better help users do their jobs effectively from anywhere, Galloway extolled the ability of Cisco's new hardware-based spectrum analysis access points to work in concert with enhanced back-end management resources to detect RF interferers, deliver AirQuality assessment scores to wireless administrators, and take automated avoidance actions to mitigate the effects of radio interference.

Chris Kozup, Cisco's senior manager for Mobility Solutions, gave me a quick CleanAir demonstration on the show floor, providing an opportunity to clarify a few things I didn't glean from my initial explorations into the technology. During the demo, a heat map showed a precise location for numerous interferers detected throughout Cisco's network, most of which were Bluetooth headsets. Specifically, I wanted to know how Cisco determined each of those headsets was a separate device, rather than a few devices strapped to the head of a couple guys wandering the hallways that were detected here and there by different access points, since CleanAir tracks interferers over time.

Kozup explained that each interferer is uniquely identified within the system and assigned a fake MAC address to identify it in an ongoing fashion. When I asked how Cisco could ensure it was tracking the same device over time-for instance, if there were a bunch of the same model of headset in use (a likely scenario if the company standardized on a model)-he replied that there are detectable differences in the timing of the detected RF pulses that could be used for specific identification, even within the same product family.

Such accuracy is made possible through the use of a spectrum analysis ASIC built into Cisco's new Aironet 3500 access points. And a few companies delivering spectrum analysis via software enhancements to standard WiFi access points scoffed at the need for a hardware-enabled solution and the added expense of such equipment.

The first time I encountered spectrum analysis features baked into standard WiFi access point hardware was when I tested AirDefense Enterprise 7.3 two years ago. On the show floor, I happened to run into AirDefense's former CTO Amit Sinha, now fellow and chief technologist for Motorola Enterprise Wireless LAN (Motorola acquired AirDefense in 2008), and I asked him what he had found customers wanted and expected from their spectrum analysis features in the two years since AirDefense introduced the feature.

Sinha stated that customers didn't want to spend a lot of money just for spectrum analysis, and they didn't want to have to choose where to deploy spectrum analysis features, since they didn't know where problems would occur. And they did not want or need to know detailed and specific information about the interferer, just where it most likely can be found and what kind of device it is likely to be. A software enhancement to off-the-shelf WiFi hardware provides an ideal solution-inexpensive to acquire and easy to deploy and use.

Meanwhile, an Aruba representative e-mailed me at the show to stress that a software solution negates the need to rip and replace the entire access point fleet, which is what Cisco proposes in delivering the full complement of CleanAir features. For those who have already deployed 802.11n, that would be a tall order.

Avaya President and CEO Kevin Kennedy used his keynote address to announce Avaya's new Wireless LAN 8100 Series of wireless controllers, 802.11n access points and management software. The solution touts a split plane architecture that separates the control plane from the data and management planes. While the press release makes the 8100 series sound like a verbatim rebranding of Nortel's WLAN properties, it looks like there will be a selection of controllers and access points to choose from, and Avaya has promised the tightest integration of WLAN and wired network management. We'll see how that shapes up when the products ship in mid-2010.

Xirrus is present and is hosting Interop's public wireless network again, with greater success than I understand it had last year. It is also hosting boxing matches on the show floor for the second year in a row, while touting a recent Tolly Group report that Xirrus commissioned. The report iterated that Xirrus' XN8 Wi-Fi Array delivered higher user density per device and greater coverage area in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands than an unnamed wireless controller with four dual-radio access points.

Several notable wireless LAN vendors were absent from the show floor. Companies such as Meru Networks, Aerohive Networks and Aruba Networks chose to forgo sponsoring a booth at the expo, to save money or to focus their tradeshow agenda on vertical specific conferences-particularly shows focusing on the health care sector. However, I found representatives of those companies sprinkled throughout a handful of Interop conferences.

Dorothy Stanley, Aruba's senior standards architect, participated on a panel titled "Wi-Fi 2015-The Next Five Years" that attempted to focus on a handful of forward-looking WiFi issues. The panel briefly touched on the IEEE 802.11ac task group looking at gigabit and up network speeds leveraging multiple-user MIMO to send different users simultaneous streams on the same channel, as well as the 802.11k (radio resource management), 802.11r (fast roaming) and 802.11v (wireless network management) efforts currently under way.

However, the audience seemed much more interested in discussing the present, looking for more information about the reliability of 802.11n and the viability of voice over WiFi. Obviously, those who have not yet taken the plunge on 802.11n were looking for confirmation that their near-term adoption will still be relevant and useful for them in 2015.

They got it.