IT executives shopping for 802.11 gear need to take special care to pick an architecture that suits their long-term plans and a vendor with staying power. The wireless LAN switch market is facing a major shakeout in 2004.

The big buzz is coming from the swarm of start-up WLAN switch vendors, such as Trapeze Networks(new product, review) Vivato, Airespace and Aruba Wireless Networks (who both recently launched into Europe). These companies all burst onto the scene earlier this year with products that manage wireless security, radio frequency and roaming - three critical needs that traditional switches don't handle. They are joined in this market by two established wireless vendors, Proxim and Symbol Technologies (the first entrant and probably the market leader).

While these companies are shipping products and have the early lead, the wired switch vendors, heavyweights such as Cisco Systems, Extreme Networks and Nortel Networks, are coming on fast. They will soon catch up on features and will stress the value of dealing with one vendor for wired and wireless LAN equipment, software and support - a powerful combination in the long term, analysts say.

So how will this all shake out? "There will be a serious dropout of the start-up vendors," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner. "You can't survive on wireless alone. The clear winners are going to be the ones with an established wire presence."

Some financial strains already are starting to show. Both Trapeze and Vivato laid off employees in recent months, citing slower-than-anticipated sales.

On the other hand, it's clear that over the long term the call for enterprise wireless will continue to increase. Users accustomed to the convenience of wireless at home will demand it at work, analysts say. Plus, 95 percent of corporate notebooks will ship with wireless capability by 2005, according to Meta Group. So IT organisations will need to move beyond providing WLANs in spot locations such as conference rooms and will need to develop some type of enterprise WLAN strategy.

However, as many IT departments learned in early WLAN rollouts, managing access points can devour time and dollars, and management woes only increase as a company scales the technology.

Why wireless switches?
That's where Airespace, Aruba, Proxim, Symbol, Trapeze and the others come in, offering wireless switches for centrally managing radio frequency, security and roaming. In this crowded field, Aruba and Symbol deserve close attention, analysts and corporate customers say.

Aruba stands out because its switch and access points do an excellent job monitoring the air, and it offers customers more deployment flexibility and auto-configuration capabilities than some other products. Also, Aruba's Layer 3 connection means the Aruba switch doesn't need a hard connection to access points. Aruba switches also work with Wi-Fi-compliant third-party access points, but to get the most from Aruba's technology, including features such as site surveys and troubleshooting, Aruba access points become necessary.

From a business perspective, an established vendor has built-in advantages over start-ups. A company such as Symbol has an existing customer base, experience and established relationships with distributors, Gartner's Dulaney says.

In terms of technology, Symbol stands out because it promotes the thinnest access point, a US$200 device it calls an access port.

However, Symbol has financial issues of its own. The company has had to restate financial results back to 1998 because of what it calls "numerous errors and irregularities in the books and records of the company."

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney's office have ongoing investigations, and Symbol has yet to file its 2002 annual report. New management is working to straighten out the books and get the company back on track, and the latest unaudited results show the company making a profit.

Proxim also has its challenges. Last year, Proxim merged with wireless WAN vendor Western Multiplex and bought Agere Systems in order to acquire the Orinoco line of 802.11 gear. Although revenue is up slightly, Proxim lost $38.2 million in its latest quarter and has lost $97.7 million in the first three quarters of this year. Proxim stock is hovering in the $1.50-per-share range, and a federal court jury recently ordered Proxim to pay an estimated $23 million in royalties to Symbol as part of a patent-infringement battle between the two companies.

In all, Dulaney has identified more than 20 companies in the WLAN switch market and predicts that only a handful will survive the shakeout. Some start-ups simply will run out of money, while others are likely to be acquired by traditional switch vendors such as Nortel or 3Com, he predicts.

Vivato seems to have carved out a unique niche with outdoor and long-distance technology -- useful for applications like an emergency medical response system, says David Willis, vice president of technology research services at Meta Group.

Wake-up call for the wired vendors
Forced to address the wireless switch buzz, Cisco has crafted a response -- although not all products ship until 2004. Cisco's approach is to distribute various functions to the appropriate device, whether it's an access point, a WLAN switch or a wired switch.

While traditional Cisco switches don't handle all the functions that the Aruba and Symbol switches do, products in Cisco's recently announced Structured Wireless-Aware Network framework will.

Last month, Cisco announced the CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solutions Engine (WLSE) 2.5 appliance along with an upgrade to Cisco IOS software that adds radio frequency management capabilities -- such as help with site surveys and coverage analysis. The upgrade also added detection and blocking of rogue access points and security alerts.

Cisco has voice applications in mind as it also improves roaming capabilities. In 2004, look for Cisco to extend roaming capabilities so phones and other wireless clients can cross subnets without application hiccups.

Among Cisco solutions that meld wired and wireless LAN management, some functionality will be added via software, such as a wireless aware version of IOS that is due out in 2004. In other cases, a new hardware component, such as a blade in a switch, will be required. It's unclear yet exactly what a Cisco setup will cost, but price is not necessarily the primary concern.

"If you already have Cisco as your vendor, you have to ask yourself, 'Do I want to go with other vendors, because I've spent so much time and effort to stay homogeneous?'" Gartner's Dulaney says.

Take Sovereign Bank in Wyomissing, Philadelphia. It uses the CiscoWorks 2.0 WLSE and is beta-testing the 2.5 WLSE product with Cisco Aironet access points. Sovereign's WLAN has 15 access points and about 100 active users; the WLAN will grow to include all the bank's notebook users (about 1000), plus 50 to 100 PDA users in the next couple of years.

"Long-term operational cost was a factor," says Todd Diersheide, a senior network engineer at Sovereign. "We are a large Cisco shop, and we already have a strong Cisco support team. The synergies between the Cisco wired network devices and the Cisco WLAN network devices allow us to support the technology with minimal investment in staff."

Nortel, like Cisco, is trying to offer a range of "smarts" -- such as security features and air monitoring -- in its $599 to $899 access points. Plus the company is producing management appliances such as the Security Switch 2250. This $8000 switch centralizes security, enables roaming across subnets and allows radio frequency range adjustments -- but not analysis for optimising performance. Auto-configuration capabilities for radio frequency will come later, says Anthony Bartolo, Nortel's director, wireless solutions, enterprise networks. Like Cisco, Nortel sees markets for both blade products and smaller boxes, Bartolo says.

Extreme began shipping its new option, the Summit 300, in late September. This $7,000 "smart" switch plugs into a core switch or other wiring closet switch at Layer 2 and/or Layer 3. It can take the place of a traditional Extreme switch, doing wired and wireless management.

Gateways offer third option
There's a third option for WLAN management: gateways from companies such as Bluesocket and ReefEdge.

Gateway products will continue to provide compelling options for customers that already have installed various access points and want to overlay central security policies. "Bluesocket would be perfect for say, a university where a bunch of (access points) have been deployed," Dulaney says.

In Bluesocket's Secure Mobility Matrix architecture, one access point acts as a "supermaster." To update security policies or change access point configurations, an IT department performs changes on the supermaster access point, which broadcasts changes to all other access points through a secure tunnel using the wired backbone.

Bluesocket's security capabilities enable policy integration that's role-based down to time and place. For instance, a hospital might want to lock down access in a certain wing at a certain time. Bluesocket's quality-of-service features allow allocating bandwidth by user, group or application.

ReefEdge's system focuses around the CS200 Connect Server -- a Wireless Network Concentrator as the company calls it - which is not a true switch but an appliance that sits at the center of a corporate network, addressing security, management and mobility issues. Companion Edge Controller devices provide security and subnet roaming capabilities, doing some of the same tasks as Bluesocket's boxes. But configuration and management is done from the Connect Server. Three versions of the Edge Controllers include a desktop appliance that manages three to five access points for small installation sites; a network appliance for 10 to 20 access points; and a large version for data centers.

However, the line between gateway vendors and WLAN switch vendors is starting to blur a bit. ReefEdge announced last week that it is introducing a WLAN switch. The ReefSwitches are Layer 2/Layer 3 devices that can manage radio waves and detect unauthorized access points. The ReefSwitches work with third-party access points. Bluesocket is also stepping into the wireless switch area, using a partnership with Propagate and Netgear to duplicate switch functions.

It's all good
For IT departments, the good news is that if wireless capability is needed immediately, there are several solid wireless vendors shipping products. If you want to stick with your existing wired switch vendor, wait a bit for the wired players to catch up.