Interop goes wireless

Vendors are adding bells and whistles to their wireless LAN products as the industry awaits a new generation of gear that may replace wired LANs entirely.

Cisco Systems Inc. chairman and CEO John Chambers highlighted WLAN add-ons in the first keynote address of the Las Vegas trade show last month Nortel Networks Corp. was to unveil WLAN gear as part of its enterprise push at the show, and specialist Meru Networks Inc. was to show off a new tracking tool.

Wireless may become the new enterprise LAN after the IEEE 802.11n standard is finished, delivering more than 100M bps of throughput, said Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney. The final version of that probably won’t be approved until 2009, but vendors are adding features to existing lineups that may make existing WLAN technologies more attractive to enterprises.

Cisco is adding features for voice quality, ease of management, asset tracking and other capabilities to its Unified Wireless Network line of wireless LAN controllers. It says those features will be ideal for specific industries, but the move may help drive WLANs into more businesses across the board, according to Dulaney.

Most of the new capabilities are in the newly introduced Cisco Unified Wireless Network Software 4.1, which runs the controllers. Current customers can get the software free; it’s available now.

With “chokepoint” software, enterprises can use WLANs to track what room an object is in. The software works with sensors that can be placed in doorways and see when an object with a passive RFID (radio frequency identification) tag goes by. Chokepoints make for more precise asset tracking, said Lynn Lucas, director of mobility solutions at Cisco. Hospitals could use them to keep close track of equipment so doctors and nurses can quickly find it and know its condition, she said. Cisco is also extending its Cisco Compatibility Extensions (CCX) program to RFID tags, so tags from different vendors can all communicate with one Cisco network.

Load-based call admission control, also new, lets WLAN controllers figure out whether an access point that is already moving a lot of traffic can carry a voice call.

The software can also work with Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager to make emergency 911 calls go through no matter what. Working with partner Berbee Information Networks Corp., Cisco can also now bring push-to-talk to Wi-Fi phones.

Cisco is also adding a high-level management application, the Wireless Control System Navigator, which gives a single interface to control as many as 20,000 access points across an enterprise. That software costs $19,995 (all prices US) and is available now.

Nortel is rolling out a wireless LAN switch, an access point and Location Engine software as part of a renewed enterprise push at the show.

The Wireless LAN Security Switch 2382, which connects multiple access points, is less expensive per access point than the 2380 model, said Kyle Klassen, director of enterprise wireless marketing. It costs as little as $9,995 with a license for 32 access points and can be licensed for as many as 128.

The company is also unveiling its model 2332 access point, which can set up a wireless backhaul link to other access points, for $599. Nortel’s Location Engine can track thousands of devices on a WLAN, including both trusted devices and intruders, and lets enterprises add location information to a user’s presence in a unified communications system. Pricing was not disclosed.

Meru also is introducing better tracking technology. Its E(z)RF High-Fidelity Location Manager software can track devices in real time to within five to 15 feet, said Paul Curto, a product manager. Administrators can also set up “virtual shields” covering certain areas, so users can access the enterprise network within those areas and not outside. For example, a school could use a virtual shield to block WLAN access inside an auditorium where a test was being administered, he said. The software will be available in June for a list price of $13,995.

All wireless LAN vendors are integrating their technology more tightly with specific business uses, Gartner’s Dulaney said. Specialized vendors already have some of these capabilities, but Cisco is playing a leadership role because of its dominant market position, he said. Applications such as asset tracking and voice are reasons for enterprises to deploy wireless LANs, and Cisco is setting examples, he said.

Companies do see the benefit of employee mobility, according to IDC analyst Stephen Drake. About 70 per cent in a recent IDC survey covering all forms of mobility said they are testing or have deployed at least one mobile application. 070062

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