INTEROP: New wireless LAN hardware options abound

Vendors keep changing the most basic element of the enterprise wireless LAN: the access point.

Several hardware announcements at the Interop trade show this week add still more options to the “Chinese menu” of wireless LAN options for network executives:

* Meru Networks is unveiling a kind of super access point, packing into a single box up to 12 WLAN radios, all of which can operate at the same time.

* Aruba is offering what it dubs a personal access point, which you can take on the road or use at home, plug into any Ethernet port, and tunnel securely to your corporate net over a WAN connection.

* Chipmaker SiNett announces a complete reference design, including boards, software, development tools, and services built around its recently announced chip that can process both IEEE 802.3 Ethernet packets and 802.11 WLAN packets; this is the heart of future switches, routers, and other net gear that will form a single net with both wired and wireless client access.

* Siemens Communications is formally unveiling its line of WLAN switches and thin access points, based on technology it acquired from start-up Chantry Networks last year.

The new Radio Switch product line, from Meru, Sunnyvale, Calif., is aimed at creating wireless LANs that can support lots of users, at higher throughput than conventional single-radio access points. The Radio Switch box is an access point with four, eight or 12 radios, in a mix of 2.4-GHz 802.11b/g and 5-GHz 11a radios. The box is cabled to a new Meru-designed omni-directional twin antenna, which looks rather like a short chimney.

The antenna is the key, Meru executives say. It lets all the radios in the node send or receive at the same time, without interfering with each other. “Think of this as a big access point that can send and receive on 12 channels at the same time,” says Vaduvur Bharghavan, Meru’s founder and CTO.

With each channel acting in effect as a single access point to which wireless clients connect, each Radio Switch node can support vastly more users in a given area than a conventional access point.

One key point to keep in mind: the Radio Switch has the same range as standard single-radio 11b/g or 11a access points. An enterprise would need about the same number of Meru Radio Switches as conventional access points. The difference, according to the vendor, is that many more users can be supported on each node.

The Radio Switches, linked to Meru’s WLAN switch, can balance users and traffic across the group of radios. “The switch knows all 12 radios and channels,” says Bharghavan. “It blocks a congested radio channel from responding to a client [connection] probe.” The Radio Switch can also kick out lower-priority users, such as those not running voice or video traffic, from one channel and reconnect them on another. The switch is done behind the scenes, and users aren’t aware it has been done.

The Meru Radio Switch will be available in August, in three versions: RS-4000, RS-8000, and RS-12000, reflecting four, eight, and 12 radios. Pricing for the 4000 starts at US$1,795 and for the 8000 at $2,995. The 12000 pricing will be announced later.

Aruba is introducing code that can run on its current access point products, turning them into what the San Jose WLAN vendor calls the Personal Access Point.

Enterprise IT groups can load the software, then configure the access point to meet corporate security policies and ship it to a remote office or a telecommuter’s home. There, a user plugs the access point into a power outlet and then into an Ethernet wall jack or the Ethernet port on a DSL modem or WAN router. The Personal Access Point then passes all WLAN traffic over a secure IPSec tunnel to an Aruba WLAN switch at a central site. The new software lets you carry what is in effect a secure enterprise WLAN access point anywhere and use it with any Ethernet port and IP network, according to Aruba.

If the Personal AP is lost or stolen, there’s no information that an attacker can use to authenticate as a user to the corporate net.

According to Aruba, the Personal AP also works on hotel or other guest access nets, including wireless ones. Once a user logs on through the customary Web portal on the hotel’s network, the IPSec tunnel activates, and the user authenticates to his or her corporate net.

The Personal Access Point is available now, priced at about $250, depending on the Aruba access point selected to run it.

At Interop this week, Aruba is demonstrating the software running on a prototype access point the size of a cigarette pack, which would make the Personal Access Point highly portable as well. No time has been set for releasing the prototype as a product.

SiNett, a Sunnyvale, Calif., chipmaker founded in 2002, will unveil at Interop its OneEdge Reference Platform, a set of components for building network gear such as switches and routers that use vendor’s OneEdge chip. The chip, released last year, can handle WLAN traffic, security and traditional Layer 2 and Layer 3 switching functions.

The reference design is intended as the foundation for equipment makers to create network devices that unify traditional Ethernet switching with WLAN processing. Today, those functions are handled separately, usually in a network processor, so the WLAN is a separate network in the enterprise with its own management and security requirements.

When WLAN traffic is handed off to an Ethernet switch some information in the 802.11 packet headers, used for management and administration, is lost. The SiNett chip can preserve this information, and promises to create a single network to which users can connect by wired or wireless connections.

The SiNett architecture eliminates the network processor, relying instead on embedded, programmable CPU cores.

SiNett executives estimate that switch built on their reference design will likely be priced about 20% higher than today’s Ethernet-only switches. That difference will drop as economies of scale kick in over time. Siemens Communications, Boca Raton, Fla., will showcase its WLAN switches and thin access points, labeled HiPath Wireless, for the first time. Siemens last year acquired part of the assets of WLAN switch start-up Chantry Networks, and these products are the basis of the HiPath line.

HiPath is an umbrella label that also covers Siemens wireline data networking and voice-over-IP products aimed at the enterprise.

Siemens is also introducing the OptiPoint WL2 Professional, a WLAN phone that can run on any WLAN that supports Session Initiation Protocol. About the size of a standard cell phone, the new OptiPoint is priced at $495 per handset, with charger, includes a color screen, soft keys, and can access user data in LDAP-based corporate directories. The message-waiting light alerts users to messages on corporate voice mail systems. The phone can work on both 802.11b and 11g WLANs, and will ship in August.

Since acquiring the Chantry assets, Siemens has revamped and expanded its portfolio of WLAN design, tech support, help desk, and remote diagnostic and monitoring services for enterprise users.

Related links:

Wireless LANs face next challenges

Wireless beats fibre on Prairie

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