Switches make WLAN deployment easier

You have a wireless LAN with 50 access points. You manage it using running shoes, bailing wire and spit. Now, a host of companies say they’ve got a solution and it looks a lot like something you already use: an Ethernet switch.

Two startups, Aruba Wireless Networks Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc., and big fish Extreme Networks Inc., rolled out switches last month that secure and control companion WLAN access points, the goal being to extend traditional network control to the wireless realm.

By shifting intelligence from access points back to the switch, these and other vendors – including Airespace Inc., which also announced a product last month – can simplify wireless deployment by building in support for security, radio optimization and other advanced management tasks.

Aruba’s switch has up to 72 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports to connect to wireless access points; Extreme has 48, and Trapeze has 20. Aruba has up to six gigabit Ethernet uplink ports, Extreme has four, and Trapeze has two.

Extreme executives emphasize the Layer 3 capabilities of their new switch, such as IP filtering and quality of service. But Trapeze executives say focusing on Layer 2 makes for simpler and less-expensive switch deployment, although Trapeze does support some Layer 3 features.

And each vendor sounds a different marketing theme. Aruba focuses on software that lets the switch track wireless users across subnets, maintaining each user’s access and service privileges.

Extreme describes its switch as one that adapts the wired network’s edge to seamlessly handle any kind of IP-enabled client, wired or wireless.

Trapeze touts a sophisticated graphical user interface software package, called RingMaster, which can simulate the WLAN and translate the simulation into configuration instructions for the access points.

The network headaches that such products are designed to heal are growing more painful for network executives.

“When you have more than about 10 wireless access points, they just get difficult to troubleshoot and maintain,” says Abner Germanow, enterprise networks research manager for IDC in Framingham, Mass. “If you deploy a lot of access points and one of them goes down today, it’s difficult to know that without walking around with a laptop or PDA scanner.”

What network executives want, Germanow says, is to centralize the configuration and management of WLANs that, today, are separate from the wired backbone.

“We’ve got a big management problem with 560 access points,” says Brad Noblet, director of technical services at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He recently began a pilot network using the new Aruba 5000 switch.

Dartmouth’s WLAN is already so extensive and pervasive that students canoeing on the nearby Connecticut River can get wireless access. But incorporating new technologies, such as 54Mbps 802.11g radios, and new standards such as 802.11i for improved wireless security, promises to be an administrative nightmare and expensive.

“Most of the wireless switch vendors are touting features that will let me control power levels [for the access point radios],” Noblet says. By lowering the radio power, he can shrink the size of the radio envelope around an access point and pack more access points into an area.

Aruba’s switch also will give him a real-time radio “map.” He can see the health of each access point, how many users are associated to it, which users and what services they’re using. All that is invisible to network executives today.

The Aruba 5000 switch is a modular box that can be fitted with 24, 48 or 72 ports. An eight-port box for branch offices and similar sites are expected by year-end.