Hewlett-Packard's wireless LAN switch, announced yesterday is not the most exciting wireless LAN switch in existence. But you wouldn't expect that, if you knew HP.

The WESM (Wireless Edge Services Module) had a distinct lack of the bells and whistles from rivals strutting last week at Interop.

So, when innovation is coming back into enterprise WLANs, what does HP do? It announces what is pretty much a vanilla WLAN switch, packaged as a module for its 5300 edge switch. It doesn't have the kind of added-value features that Aruba and Trapeze have been selling for a year or more.

As with Gigabit and Layer 3 switches, HP isn't going to be the first, or the most exciting; it arrives when it's time for a technology to become "ordinary", piled high, and sold with a long warranty. It's got good market share in Gigabit and Layer 3 this way, and it's hoping wireless will go the same way.

What it does have, according to global mobility product manager Kail Krall, is integration. It's a pure HP product, he says (a claim that will probably get unpicked over the next few weeks) and it's not an overlay - like the other approaches. It's integrated so it can be part of the network, managed in exactly the same way as HP's wired products.

That's a fair claim, but it's also worth pointing out that the functions are limited. HP can't claim, as it does with Gigabit and Layer Three products, to have duplicated what the competition has, in a more reliable form.

If you want to do more than just manage some access points - and we're talking about fairly obvious needs like planning RF coverage on your floorplan, monitoring or running RF probes - you need a third party product from AirWave that HP sells.

The Cisco comparison
So how does it stack up against Cisco? HP stopped short of making a full comparison with Cisco's products, because it doesn't actually compare directly with either of the modules Cisco brought out last year based on its Airespace acquisition.

Cisco's WISM blade for the Catalyst 6500, costs $46,000, an controls up to 300 access points. Its WLCM module, for the ISR branch router, costs $2300 and manages up to six access points.

HP's module is for the 5300, a modular switch that comes between those two. The module costs €3600, and supports up to 12 access points, which can be expanded to 36, at a cost of another €6000.

In other words, HP is actually shooting for smaller networks than Cisco anyway.

The branch piece
HP is already moving to fill gaps in the line: June sees the arrival of the 530, a standalone AP for branches.

Why launch a "fat" AP, that can stand on its own, after finally accepting the benefits of "thin" ones? It's so that, if the wide area network or the central control goes down, users in the branch can still communicate with each other and the Internet, explains Hareng.

To do this, the 530 must have a failover RADIUS server for users to authenticate against. Putting RADIUS data in a portable access point is not the security it might seem, said Hareng: "It's not a proxy," he explained. It only contains details of the local network, and the log-ons are password protected.

Who's it for?
"It's mostly for existing HP customers," said Evelien Wiggers, senior research analyst at IDC. The product pitch leans so heavily on its integration with HP's products it couldn't be otherwise.

EMEA ProCurve product manager Bruno Hareng reckons some Cisco customers with intermediate Wi-Fi needs - and no Cat 6500 to plug a WISM into - might add wireless by buying HP's 5300 and a WESM. But then, if they haven't got a Cat 6500, do they count as "real" Cisco customers? As we said earlier, HP is after the smaller fish in Cisco's net.

What about HP's existing kit?
The product does not replace HP's existing 700wl product, said Krall. The 700wl, originally a first-generation box (reviewed here), made by Vernier that managed fat access points by firewalling them off from the main network, appeared as a 5300 switch module as part of a big launch in February. "The 700 was one of the first to be launched as a services module," said Krall. "It is very useful for customers with demanding wireless environments, for instance those that have no control over what type of wireless clients will be used. The 700 complements the WESM"

Let's see how it works
The proof of this product will be in how well it works. If it really saves management effort, that would cut the cost of ownership, but that will only show when we kick the tyres.

"The cost of WLANs is only 30 percent acquisition, and 70 percent operational costs," said Renee Yandell, EMEA marketing manager for ProCurve. "This will have low operational costs, because it's not an overlay."