New chip architecture promises simpler, cheaper WLANs

A Texas chip design company is introducing a wireless LAN chipset aimed at access points for small and medium-sized enterprise networks.

Bandspeed's AirMaestro silicon (http://www.bandspeed.com/technology/bsp1000.phtml) incorporates on the chipset a range of tasks typically done at a higher level by a WLAN switch, such as radio frequency management, security management, and traffic prioritization. With the chipset, access points in smaller-scale SMB networks could handle these tasks automatically, on their own, without the cost or complexity of a WLAN switch.

Bandspeed's approach seems to turn inside-out the movement toward WLANs that rely on stripped-down, or thin, access points linked to a WLAN switch that centralizes security, RF management, administration, and other key tasks.

"We're not against the controller [or switch]," says William Eversole, CEO for Bandspeed. "But there's a whole segment of the market that's being underserved because of the cost associated with the way those WLAN controllers are being implemented today."

WLAN vendors such as Aruba, Trapeze, and Cisco offer smaller, less expensive versions of their switches specifically for branch offices and the SMB market in general. Eversole says such products are still expensive compared to the access points that the Bandspeed chipset would enable. "Our architecture is aimed at smaller companies without big IT staffs," he says.

The SMB network market is mainly serviced via value-added resellers, Eversole says. By having more intelligence in the Bandspeed access point, and no longer having to deploy separate WLAN switches, VARs will see savings of 30 percent to 40 percent on the overall wireless LAN cost, including deployment, Eversole says.

The Bandspeed BSP1000 processor includes a three-channel Media Access Control layer and baseband. In effect, it creates three IEEE 802.11a/b/g radios on each access point. There is additional signal-processing hardware in the processor for dampening interference and for advanced radio frequency monitoring. Two of the radios support 11a and 11b/g connections to wireless clients.

The company's software components run on the chipset and on the AP itself. A small PC application is the network management interface for an administrator.

A key part of the design is the third dual-band radio, which acts as a monitor, continuously scanning for radio activity on both bands at the same time, and then identifying its source and location.

By contrast, RF monitoring today is done either by installing radio scanners that are separate from the access points or by having the access points periodically switch between carrying radio traffic and monitoring radio signals. Bandspeed's approach promises to eliminate the separate installation costs and management burden of the first, and the potential impact on data quality, especially for streaming media, of the second.

The third radio also supplies the Bandspeed code with data about the RF environment. That data can be used by the chipset to automatically alter channel assignments and radio power levels, to identify radio interference, and to track rogue access points and clients.

This data can also be viewed by the PC application that lets an administrator log into the Bandspeed access point. From that initial login, the administrator can see data from the entire network, query individual access points, and see their associated clients as well as rogue devices.

For security, the Bandspeed product supports Wired Equivalent Privacy, Wi-Fi Protected Access, and Wi-Fi Protected Access 2, which implements the 802.11i security standard (more details are available at http://www.bandspeed.com/technology/techFAQs.phtml).

The Bandspeed silicon is available now in production quantities, along with the complete software package. The company has delivered sample units to one OEM/ODM, but Eversole declined to identify this customer.

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