Cisco releases Airespace WLAN location server

Cisco has repackaged and modified some Airespace technology to create a rack-mount server that can track the locations of up to 1,500 wireless LAN devices to within 10 square meters.

Using location data from the server, called Cisco Wireless Location Appliance 2700, network administrators can identify where all WLAN devices are, and see how WLAN signal strength varies over a site. More importantly, an API lets the same data be used by much more sophisticated third-party applications for such jobs as tracking medical equipment ranging from gurneys to infusion pumps.

At the heart of the 2700 is location software that was announced almost a year ago by Airespace, which Cisco acquired earlier this year. Airespace had planned to ship the software in late 2004 as an add-on to a rack-mounted version of its WLAN switch.

The 2700 works by drawing signal strength data from Airespace thin access points and processed by special algorithms on the appliance. The data is displayed in Airespace’s network management application, now called Cisco Wireless Control System, which can display WLAN devices on a map or blueprint.

The device is sold as a separate, dedicated device with the location software loaded. The software essentially makes the standard process of triangulating a WLAN signal more accurate, by factoring in signal attenuation and other effects. A Wireless Control System application acts as the management interface for administrators.

Cisco executives said that when the company’s acquisition of Airespace was announced, engineers from both companies brought together work that was being done by each camp. Exactly what Cisco brought to the table isn’t clear.

When asked for details about what changes or additions were made to the Airespace software, a Cisco spokesman replied by e-mail saying that the 2700 is “based not only on Airespace products/technology, but also on location technologies from Cisco, particularly in the area of software and RF capabilities as well as rigorous product testing/quality assurance processes, and beta customer input.”

Observers expect Cisco to provide support for its legacy Aironet access points for use with the 2700. “The location appliance works with the Airespace controller and thin access points,” says Larry Hart, director, strategic accounts, for Global CTI Group, Bakersfield, Calif., a network integrator specializing in Cisco and Airespace wireless nets. “But Cisco in the near future will let legacy [Aironet] access points communicate with the appliance. Most of our customers are Aironet users.”

Cisco’s packaging simplifies deployment of WLAN-based location services, he says, and the API for third party applications makes it possible for enterprise IT groups to exploit location data much more effectively than before. Asset management is one example, with WLAN radio tags attached to vital or expensive portable equipment. “If you’re able to protect and maintain expensive assets that cost tens of thousands of dollars with a $100 radio tag, that’s a no-brainer,” says Hart.

Lee Memorial Health Systems, Fort Meyers, Fla., has just installed the 2700 location appliance, although the device still sports the “Airespace” label. The healthcare provider has a Cisco core and an Airespace WLAN. With the 2700, it is deploying PanGo Networks’ Locator/Healthcare product, which is a set of WLAN radio tags that attach to infusion pumps or other gear, and a highly graphical user interface. PanGo was one of the first to exploit the Cisco location API, pulling the signal data, MAC addresses and X/Y coordinate data from the appliance.

“We thought we could probably show a return on investment just on savings in man hours alone [for equipment maintenance],” says Bob Votta, director of network technical services for Lee Memorial. The Federal Drug Administration, for example, requires hospitals to do regular preventive maintenance on IV pumps. In the past, technicians collected work tickets on several pumps and then went hunting for them, sometimes spending hours in the search. The 2700 appliance and the PanGo software will reduce that to minutes.

The hospital is also looking at creating radio wrist tags for some patients, such as those suffering from Alzheimers. The 2700 will let the hospital set up radio zones and alarms that will warn if a patient has wandered outside a given area.

The Wireless Location Appliance 2700 will ship in June, with a list price of US$14,999.

Related link:

Cisco nets Airespace for US$450 million

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