For the past few years, organisations have gone full-force in deploying a combination of wired and wireless enterprise networks. But now, as wireless technology matures, they are left asking: Where are the tools to unify management of these disparate networks?

"There's not a lot on the market at this point for unified wired/wireless management, but it's clearly in future plans for vendors," says Craig Mathias, principal at consultancy Farpoint Group, and a Computerworld.com columnist.

Mathias says the obstacle for most wireless and wired equipment and software makers has been figuring out how to develop a management platform that would work across a heterogeneous environment that involves so many different parts.

Simultaneous, but not unified

The closest thing to unified management tools that Mathias has seen are systems that let you view your separate wired and wireless networks simultaneously.

But, he says, as management rises up the stack of importance for IT teams, this problem will garner much more attention. "Once the capital expenditure is made on a combined wired and wireless network, success is a result of how good the management platform is," he says.

Seth Atkins, mobility solutions leader for the Enterprise CTO Office at Nortel Networks, says that a unified management tool could actually lead to lower capital expenditures and operational expenses because IT teams would need less equipment, less software and fewer workers to manage the combined wired and wireless enterprise network. "The industry is just now starting to see the value of a single management tool," he says.

Present tools are unified in name only

At Nortel, teams are already researching how to create unified management tools that are truly integrated. "Today most tools on the market are unified in name only. It's one thing to say you put a link in a wired management application that can launch a wireless management tool, but another to really unify them," Atkins says.

Part of the problem is that vendors created wireless LAN tools with primary elements that differ from their wired counterparts. "There are monitoring and security capabilities that just didn't exist in previous wired management tools because certain concepts don't apply to wired networks," he says. For instance, there was no need for radio frequency management or rogue access point monitoring and mitigation features in wired networks. "Also the concept of locating rogue and client devices in three-dimensional space using signal trilateration or other similar techniques doesn't apply to wired networks," Atkins explains.

Suresh Gopalakrishnan, vice president and general manager for emerging products at Extreme Networks, agrees that unified management tools for multivendor environments are scarce. "In general, this market is still in its infancy," he says.

Gopalakrishnan attributes this market immaturity to how networks were typically rolled out. "First, you deployed a wired network and figured out how to manage it. Then you added in wireless technology a few years later and figured out how to manage that," he says.

A big benefit of unified wired and wireless management is that organisations can apply common policies across an entire enterprise. Any changes made to access rights can be automatically updated among wired and wireless switches and access points. "If you have different tools for these tasks, the complexity of the network goes up and it quickly becomes a nightmare," he says.

Although Extreme offers unified network access controls for its switching and wireless products, the company uses a separate tool to handle RF management, a critical component of wireless networking.

Stop the madness!

Atkins says that the ad hoc nature of wireless rollouts has wreaked havoc on the ability to simplify management. "We've created this mess where we have a complete overlay network that is invisible to the underlying wired network. You're bypassing all the filtering, quality of service policies, and IDS/IPS monitoring you've put in place in your wired network because you have to tunnel traffic back to the wireless controller. And then to make matters worse, we have added security and/or location service overlays to the overlay wireless network. We have to stop this madness," he says.

According to Atkins, consolidation on the hardware side will alleviate some of this pain as wired and wireless networks become unified at the equipment level. "I don't think simply doing a common, but separate, management scheme is a good long-term approach. We need integration at the equipment level to make overall management smoother," he says.

Although they couldn't commit to a timeline, Atkins and Gopalakrishnan say they understand the urgency for unified wired and wireless management tools, and note that their respective companies hope to have these tools on the market in the near future.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor near Boston, former events editor and writer at Network World, and former managing editor of Network World Fusion.