Cisco’s Switch Turns on the Wireless

While the term “wireless LAN switch” has been bandied about for well over a year now in the industry, Cisco Systems today announced what it calls “the first true wireless-aware enterprise-class Ethernet switch.”

The company has introduced the Wireless LAN Services Module (WLSM), which integrates with Cisco’s multilayer Catalyst 6500 Series switch. The USD$18,000 hardware will control up to 150 Cisco Aironet access points (APs) out of the box, and for USD$8000 can be licensed to handle 300 APs total.

The company says among the big leaps forward that the WLSM will provide will be seamless roaming from AP to AP without losing your IP address in a campus-wide environment. Hand-off time is usually 50ms, which means that voice applications don’t lose their connection. The system has also improved intrusion detection — including the ability to shut down rogues — and a self-healing aspect so that when an AP goes down others will adjust their power and channels settings to take its place.

The module segments mobility groups, for example keeping guest and employees and voice over IP (VoIP) calls separate, so they can access just what they need: guests get to the Internet, voice traffic can get on the phone system.

Be using the WLSM, Cisco says existing users of the Catalyst 6500 will see an decrease in their total cost of ownership (TCO) for the network because they’re using their existing wireline infrastructure to build upon.

“Performance is enhanced because functions aren’t constrained by a single box,” said Larry Birenbaum, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Ethernet Access Group. “Soon new functions will be delivered to these systems that can’t be done with bolt-on approaches.”

In a Webcast for analysts and journalists held today, the company demonstrated the WLSM running a wired and wireless network and handling hand-off for a VoIP phone call made with softphone software on a wireless laptop.

In addition, the company has introduced a brand new AP, the 802.11g/b Aironet 1300 Series, which is designed to work both indoors and out, and supports wireless bridging over several miles depending on the antenna used. It will cost USD$1,299.

The only APs that will work with the WLSM are Cisco APs, including the 1300.

The company remains committed to using intelligent APs (sometimes called “fat APs) that handle more functions than the “thin” APs of other WLAN switch vendors, such as Airespace, where centralized intelligence is preferred. There is currently no standard in the industry for thin APs.

Bill Rossi, vice President and general manager of Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit says the company approach is more of a hybrid of “fat” and “thin” and that there are three key things that will always be done at the network edge on the AP: security (“companys don’t love the idea of unecrypted traffic on their network”), Quality of Service to avoid latency for voice or video, and RF management functions like gathering stats and sniffing out rogues.

Cisco’s introduction of new wireless equipment is part of its Structured Wireless Aware Network (SWAN) initiative, which was launched in mid-2003 to incorporate wireless into existing wired networks using a Cisco infrastructure. Under that banner they added 802.11g networking to their Aironet 1200 and 1100 Series APs in November of last year.

Airespaces senior manger of product marketing Jeff Aaron says that his company wouldn’t be a “bolt-on approach” like Birenbaum suggests. They recommend the Airespace switch as a full Ethernet switch with wireless.

“That’s how we get our traction with existing Cisco accounts,” says Aaron, citing customer wins like Oracle and Fidelity.

He feels that one of Cisco’s greatest assets — its massive install base — might be also holding them back. “It took [Cisco] a year and a half to recognize the market change and to offer features the industry has had for a while.”

Cisco’s Rossi says the definition of what makes a ‘WLAN switch’ boilds down to “a fundamental philosphy difference.” He feels most of the competitors have products that don’t integrate wired and wireless networks and are thus simply “appliances that sit on the network and provide services like roaming or VPN.”

Cisco also took time today to unveiled new form-factors for clients to use Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX), which allows for instant interoperation with Cisco networks. The shapes include a CCX USB module which Dell will sell. CCX 2.0 will be out in products later this year, and will be required to get fast, secure roaming on clients for things like VoIP with Cisco’s WLAN solution, but it won’t be needed for basic roaming from AP to AP.

The WLSM can be ordered now and will be available sometime in June or July of this year. The 1300 AP will be available this month.

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