Cisco adds support for WLANs to its switches

Cisco Systems Inc. last week announced plans to add wireless LAN management capabilities to its Catalyst 6500 switch line, a move that will give IT managers the ability to control their wired and wireless networks from a single device.

Cisco is aiming the Wireless LAN Services Module (WLSM) at large corporate, academic and health care networks, said Bill Rossi, vice president of its WLAN division. He added that the Catalyst 6500 add-on supports 50-millisecond handoffs between wireless access points when end users roam across WLAN subnetworks, improving Cisco's ability to support applications such as voice over IP.

Network managers can also use WLSM-equipped switches to add firewalls plus intrusion-detection and filtering capabilities to WLANs, Rossi said. In addition, they can segment groups of mobile users and give them different levels of access to data.

John Hummel, CIO at Sutter Health in Sacramento, said he's testing the WLSM and plans to use the device to manage Cisco-based WLANs in Sutter's 25 hospitals in California. He also intends to use the module to manage VoIP calls when Sutter starts testing hands-free voice devices made by Vocera Communications Inc. later this year.

Sutter is engaged in a massive project to upgrade its hospital buildings and the IT networks in them. Many of the hospitals are insulated with asbestos, and Hummel said installing WLANs is far less expensive than the cost of the asbestos mitigation work that would be needed to build new wired networks.

The base configuration of the WLSM costs US$18,000 and can manage up to 150 of Cisco's access points. For another $8,000, users can buy a license for the company's Internetworking Operating System software that lets them control a total of 300 access points. Rossi estimated that the total cost of adding a WLSM module to a Catalyst 6500 switch and installing wireless access points would be between $500 and $1,000 per access point.

That would be roughly comparable to what competitors like Airespace Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc. charge for switch-based systems that only manage WLANs. For example, San Jose-based Airespace sells its access points for $400 and switches for $12,000 to $14,000. Jeff Aaron, senior manager of marketing at Airespace, said that he found "nothing surprising" in the WLSM announcement and claimed that Cisco was following his company's technology lead.

Aaron acknowledged that Cisco's addition of WLAN support to its market-leading switches could put competitive pressure on other vendors, but he said Airespace hopes to continue taking advantage of its reseller deals with Alcatel, NEC Corp. and Nortel Networks Ltd.

"Airespace put the switch into wireless, and Cisco put wireless into the switch," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. He added that he thinks the market for enterprise-class WLANs is starting to heat up now that many security concerns have been resolved.

Cisco has been a proponent of decentralized WLANs, but Rossi said the addition of the WLSM isn't a wholesale change. The company will continue to build software that manages the airwaves and security functions into its access points, he said.

Side bar

Cisco rivals ready WLAN responses

In the wake of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Wireless LAN Services Module announcement, Airespace Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc. will both announce plans to beef up their WLAN product lines at this week's Networld+Interop conference in Las Vegas.

Airespace will introduce its Intelligent RF Access Point, which uses so-called smart antenna technology to improve WLAN performance. Four receive and four transmit antennas are mounted on the access point, allowing it to select the best radio frequency paths to and from mobile users, said Jeff Aaron, senior marketing manager at Airespace.

The multiple-antenna setup also helps reduce interference between access points and client devices and can help IT managers zero in on rogue access points installed on a network, Aaron added. The new access point is due in the third quarter and will be priced at an undisclosed premium over Airespace's standard access points, which sell for about $400.

Airespace also plans to introduce software that can pinpoint the locations of mobile devices "within a few meters" using radio frequency fingerprinting technology developed by the company, along with a location appliance that can track thousands of wireless clients simultaneously, Aaron said.

Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies is will announce its Mobility Services Suite, a set of applications that IT managers can use to automatically provision, configure and manage mobile devices and WLANs. Lee Williams, general manager of Symbol's mobility division, said the software will be available in July or August.

-- Bob Brewin

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