Switch vendors readying for WLAN battle

FRAMINGHAM (11/04/2003) - Two wireless switch start-ups, Vivato Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc., last week announced layoffs. Meanwhile, Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Ltd. are expected to announce details on adding wireless management features to their wired switches.

The events highlight an emerging enterprise debate on how to deploy large-scale wireless LANs (WLANs): whether to do so by creating an overlay to the wired LAN with a new group of "switches" designed to handle WLAN traffic, radio monitoring, addressing, management and security; or to extend existing switch products with new software that can handle these jobs.

Vivato laid off 22 employees, most of them engineers, dropping the start-up's headcount to 55, from 77. In August, Vivato laid off 14 employees, most of them also from the engineering group. Trapeze cut 30, bringing its staff down to 80 from 110. Vivato's interim Chief Executive Officer Don Stalter says the cutbacks were needed to "rebalance" the company so that more staff could be devoted to various sales and support functions. He says the cuts were also necessary to slow down how quickly the company was spending its venture funding, usually dubbed the "burn rate." "We wanted to make sure our burn rate will get us past the break even point, which it will (with the latest layoffs)," Stalter said.

Trapeze vice president of marketing Michael Banic says their cutbacks were mainly in administrative and support roles, including some from the marketing department. "The people left here are building the product, or selling it," he says.

The cutbacks were forced by the slower-than-expected adoption of large-scale WLANS in the enterprise. Trapeze's business plan and hiring was based on "pretty dramatic" industry forecasts for WLANs, he says. "We realligned the company with where the market is," Banic says.

A flock of WLAN switch vendors have designed boxes that sit either in wiring closets or data centers, collecting traffic from groups of wireless access points plugged into a wired LAN. These products typically incorporate Layer 2 and 3 features for managing and controlling traffic that passes over a radio connection, but they don't actually switch bandwidth as do today's Ethernet switches. So these WLAN switches let WLAN users move across subnets without having to re-authenticate, and maintain authorized access to a set of applications and data.

By contrast, traditional switches are blind to wireless packets: network managers can't monitor or administer the WLAN as they can the wired net. In the last few months, Cisco, Foundry Networks Inc., Extreme Networks Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. announced plans to add to their existing switches new software that would make them, in Cisco's term, "wireless aware." So far, according to Aaron Vance, an industry analyst from Synergy Research Group Inc., a market research company in Phoenix, only Extreme has started shipping products, and so far very few of them.

"I think there are some large enterprises that are 'married' to Cisco," Vance says. "Some of the smaller (start-up) vendors do seem to be getting the attention of the larger enterprises."

Cisco declined to comment in advance of next week's news.

Nortel last week announced a technology trial for a WLAN access point that uses a mesh topology instead of the hub-and-spoke model of traditional access points. Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of two trial locations for the new device, which won't be available until early 2004, says Anthony Bartolo, director of product marketing for Nortel's WLAN solutions group.

A few small companies, Firetide Inc., Strix Systems Inc. and Mesh Networks Inc., have introduced similar products: nodes in a mesh can hop through each other, acting in effect like routers to find a pathway through the net. One or more access points connect to the wired LAN, so only these gateways have to have an Ethernet cable. Today, all traditional access points require an Ethernet cable back to the wired LAN, typically to an Ethernet switch in a wiring closet.

"Will existing LAN infrastructures be able to handle both wireless and wireline (traffic)?" he asks. "These will absolutely be combined (in future switch products). Wireless will be an integral part of our switches going forward. Stay tuned: it's not far off."

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