Cisco ties wireless to switch

Leveraging the functionality of its Structured Wireless-Aware Network (SWAN) — which Cisco Systems Inc. introduced in June 2003 — the company on Wednesday announced new features to its Catalyst 6500 Series multilayer LAN switch, which according to one analyst means that the company has started to “catch up.”

Cisco has introduced the Wireless LAN Services Module (WLSM) for the Catalyst 6500 switch. According to Douglas Gourlay, senior manager of product marketing in Cisco’s Internet Systems Business Unit, in order to build the system the company had to start with basic switching capabilities, add Ethernet functionalites and lay the wireless capabilities on top of that.

“When Cisco comes out with a new product, the first thing people want to know is why we built it,” Gourlay explained during a Webcast dedicated to the technology on Wednesday. He said that the “why” is in the new features and benefits, which include the fact that WLSM preserves existing subnets, no campus spanning VLANs are needed, and there will be no design changes.

Organizations won’t have to change how they have designed and operated their network during the past five to seven years, he added.

A key component of the new WLSM is that it is an enterprise-level switch that can work over an entire integrated network — both wired and wireless simultaneously without having to implement a completely separate overlay wireless LAN (WLAN).

Although this may sound like there maybe cost savings in this approach — the system itself has a list price of US$18,000 — one analyst warned to watch out for hidden costs.

In order to use the new module, a company would have to have upgraded its 6500 switches to the latest management modules and it would require the latest software on its access points — and only Cisco access points, explained William Terrill, a senior analyst with the Burton Group in Lake Stevens, Wash.

The wireless LAN package would have to be installed and then this new module would be added, Terrill said, adding that a company might have to implement two of the modules for redundancy efforts, and at the end of the day a company is locked into this investment.

Although other vendors including Airespace Inc. and Aruba Wireless Networks also require customers to be locked-in, their technology, unlike Cisco’s, will work with access points from rival companies. Cisco’s new product announcements are important because the company is about a year behind the rest of the vendors, so it is actively trying to catch up, Terrill noted.

“A lot of the things they announced today [including] the addition of semi-decent rouge access point detection…are things that other vendors have had for at least a year. It’s kind of a catch-up game for Cisco at the moment.” Due to problems with Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) — an 802.11 security protocol for wireless networks — over the last year, Cisco’s delay to the market won’t hurt it too much, Terrill explained.

Because WEP was broken so easily, enterprises that had been looking at putting in wireless networks held off until they were sure the security issues had been resolved, Terrill added.

“The reality is most of the vendors, Cisco included, have had that solved for a better part of a year now. Enterprises are now seriously beginning to look at putting in wireless and in that situation, since it’s a new emerging market, Cisco being a year behind isn’t in super bad shape,” he said.

The Catalyst 6500 Series switch capabilities are available to WLANs either through the Supervisor Engine 720 or through the addition of other services modules including the Firewall Services Module, the Intrusion Detection Services Module and the VPN Services Module, according to Cisco.

The wireless services can be applied to a maximum of 16 mobility groups across different subnets including access for employees and visitors, explained Cisco’s Gourlay.

Guests can come to the network, tunnel through the Catalyst 6500 and will only be given access to guest services, he noted.

According to Terrill, although late to market, Cisco is just in time to impress customers with serious wireless plans.

This is the year that there will finally be major installations of wireless in enterprises that are not just aimed at a few access points in the conference room but on an enterprise-wide implementation, he added.

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