To know if you're getting what you pay for in a wireless LAN switch, you have to know what you want and what the vendor has.

WLAN switch pricing is quite variable. The products differ widely in terms of the features they have, how well the same features are implemented, the number of WLAN access points they support and which features are standard or optional.

Think of your WLAN purchase as a system, not a box, and price it accordingly. "A lot of people get caught up in what the access point costs or the wireless switch costs," says Joshua Wright, a former network engineer with Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. "They forget that with Vendor A, I (also) have to buy a separate VPN or RADIUS server, but with Vendor B, all this comes in one package."

The university and the trading floor
While at the university, Wright guided the purchase of WLAN switches and access points from Aruba Wireless Networks. He's now director of training at SANS Institute, a computer research and training firm.

Bruce Burke, network manager for Pacific Exchange, an options trading floor in San Francisco, says that some senior managers initially thought he could shop at a local electronics store and pick up a few of the wireless access points aimed at home users. "We're not talking about a little office switch deployment," he says. He spent time educating management about what was needed for a WLAN that would be reliable enough for the Exchange.

The decision cycle at Pacific Exchange took about three weeks last fall for the relatively small deployment of two Airespace switches for redundancy and 10 access points. But it took about three months at Johnson & Wales because the university was looking for a set of products that could be deployed on a larger scale, and to at least a half dozen remote campuses across the US - and more in the future.

Pacific Exchange had suffered from an existing WLAN that kept crashing the critical trading applications (see this feature for a description of Pacific's migration). Coverage was spotty because of architectural issues, including reflective surfaces and a range of building materials. An analysis convinced Burke that the new WLAN needed mountings that could accept different types of antennas, and radio management features, to adjust the radio signal strength of each access point.

Johnson & Wales had a wide range of requirements befitting a large-scale deployment. One of the most important was the support for Layer 3 roaming – allowing a user to move from one WLAN subnet to another without having to change IP addresses. The school also needed support for several security technologies: 802.1X authentication, VPNs and captive Web portals.

Watch for hidden costs
The requirements then guided both organisations through the evaluation of product features. They were especially useful in figuring the real cost of a WLAN deployment.

"What surprised us was how much the total solution cost us overall," Wright recalls. However, he declined to discuss that figure.

The cost of the hardware and software products are only part of the overall cost of your WLAN deployment. There are many hidden costs of tying a WLAN to existing authentication, security and administration systems.

"If you have a separate (WLAN) network management system, you have to set it up and configure it," says Matt Dillon, principal consultant with INS, an IT services and integration company. "Then you have to integrate it with your security access system, which is a lot of administrative time."

WLAN means more load on remote access
One INS customer had a remote-access control (RAC) system that worked fine for about 100 users. A proposed enterprise WLAN jumped the number of RAC users to more than 500, so the customer had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace the existing RAC system to handle the higher level of authentication processing.

Installation including Ethernet cabling can cost US$75 to $150 per access point, Dillon says. He says a thorough site survey is essential. Technical support capabilities and costs, and other issues such as a vendor's financial stability and product road map, are other variables to consider.

"You need to look at the components of the system and ask what would it [cost] to expand the WLAN, or increase the coverage area, or extend it to another office," Burke says.

Vendors are ready to discount
In evaluating product features against requirements, Burke and Wright each narrowed down a handful of vendors to a couple, which were subjected to more detailed examination in documents and meetings.

In both cases, vendors were required to submit pricing proposals that outlined the cost of the hardware and software components of their proposed package. "They were all dying for (our) business," Burke says. "They (offered) pretty heavy discounts.” Once more, he wouldn't elaborate. However, when Wright conducted the evaluation last summer, he found the smaller vendors were more flexible in pricing than companies like Cisco Systems. Burke, Wright and others say now is a good time for buying WLANs. "The WLAN market right now is favorable for customers," Wright says.