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November 15, 2005

Cisco flexes WLAN muscle with new architecture

Cisco Systems has unveiled a broad architecture for wireless LAN (WLAN) networking, covering indoor and outdoor environments as well as integration with its wired network infrastructure. These new forays will enable Cisco to enter markets it has not previously addressed, while consolidating its dominant position in the indoor WLAN market.

By CBR Staff Writer

The announcement of the Unified Wireless Network (UWN) is the culmination of the networking heavyweight’s efforts to integrate its own 802.11 expertise with the technology it acquired by buying WLAN switching vendor Airespace at the beginning of 2005.

Cisco is market leader in first-generation WLAN, based on fat access points carrying a lot of management functionality and sitting directly on the corporate LAN. Second-generation WLAN sought to address the security issues raised by its predecessor, deploying thin APs on an overlay network managed centrally by a dedicated switch, and Airespace led in that market before being acquired.

The new products are an amalgam of the two companies’ technologies and, for the first time, make WLAN management available in modules for the Catalyst 6500 enterprise switch and the Integrated Services Router (ISR) for branch offices and SMEs.

Until now, the Airespace controller technology has been available only in standalone appliances from Cisco, which the company will continue to offer, according to Matt Glenn, product line manager for the Airespace technology.

The Airespace switching products, which came in 12- and 24-port versions, were dropped by Cisco as soon as it acquired the company, because its vision was always to use the central management capability Airespace’s Lightweight Access Point (LWAP) protocol enables but hand the switching functionality to one of its existing wired switching products.

The first of the two modules announced as part of UWN is the Wireless Service Module (WiSM), which fits into the Cat 6500 as a blade supporting up to 300 APs and, since each 6500 chassis can take up to five blades, enabling support within a single switch for up to 1,500 APs.

The other module is the Wireless LAN Controller Module, or WiLCM. This is the module version of the 2006 standalone controller for branch offices and, like that device, it supports up to six APs, but works out slightly cheaper, with a list price of $3,300 compared to the 2006’s $3,500.

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The APs in question can be either traditional Airespace devices or Cisco’s own Aironet ones, loaded with the LWAP boot code so as to talk to the controller.

Outdoor WLANs is a market Cisco has not previously addressed, but now it has unveiled a purpose-built AP, the Aironet 1500, with two radios, an 11b/g for client access and an 11a running a special protocol making it available for mesh backhaul. The 11b/g radio can also be configured to operate as a gateway when a 1500 is deployed on top of a building for internetworking rather than client access.

When a 1500 is configured for client access and mesh participation it is referred to as a route access point, or RAP, while for gateway and mesh participation it is called a poletop access point, or PAP. In keeping with the convergence theme running through UWN, the device can be managed by the same WiSM, WiLCM or standalone controllers as the indoor APs.

The mesh WLAN networking space has until now been segmented, with vendors such as Tropos focusing on the municipal WiFi market for city-wide deployments while others like Firetide have gone for the enterprise customer. Cisco, on the other hand, is clearly targeting both markets and as such looks set to compete with a broad range of companies here.

The 1500 has a list price of $3,999 but is evidently designed to compete primarily on functionality, namely the end-to-end wireless promise of UWN and the ability to leverage existing investments in Cisco networking hardware for management purposes. With this argument, Cisco hopes to appeal to users of the 300,000 Cat 6500s in service around the world, as well as the large number of ISRs already sold: it doesn’t reveal exact numbers, but claims to hold an 80% share of the branch office routing market with that box.

These are significant announcements for the market as a whole, in that Cisco seeks both to consolidate its dominance in indoor WLAN by incorporating the Airespace technology as the center of a converged wired/wireless offering, and to extend its clout into the virgin territory of mesh networking, again with the promise of managing the new devices from existing wired infrastructure.

The installed bases of Cat 6500s and ISRs are, of course, the low-hanging fruit for its initial marketing efforts, while enabling Aironet APs to be upgraded for centralized management if required is a sensible move if it is to retain that customer base.

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