Late is better when it comes to Wi-fi. That's according to Foundry Networks anyway. The company believes that by releasing its wireless products a year or so after the other major players it has managed to leapfrog the competition.

Foundry has entered the market with full-featured 802.11a/b/g access points and will follow up with upgrades to its edge and chassis switch to manage wireless networks.

The only fly in the ointment is that by taking this route, the company has had to concede that it agrees with arch-rival Cisco. In the debate over where the intelligence in a wireless LAN should be Foundry and Cisco say the access point should be smart, and there is no need for a specialised WLAN aggregation switch. “All new players say you must have a WLAN switch, but that is just rubbish,” said Philip Kwan, Foundry’s director of enterprise applications. “What they are trying to do is use access points as a very cheap way to get into wireless, and then hit you with this WLAN switch you have to buy at the same time. Imagine a company with only 50 employees – they don’t want to by a $12,000 WLAN switch.” Foundry’s IronPoint access point, due in October, will support all three Wi-Fi flavours, 802.11a, b and g, and include features such as strong authentication, backwards compatibility with MAC filtering, and pre-shared keys, which help overcome problems with the WEP encryption standard, according to Kwan.

The APs will support power over Ethernet. They can operate as standalones or be managed by one of Foundry’s switches, which get upgrades over the next year. In December, the company will launch an upgrade to its FastIron edge switch that lets it manage wireless access points, and sometime next year it will launch a similar upgrade to its BigIron chassis switch.

As you would expect from a predominantly enterprise provider, Foundry’s products are aimed more at companies “un-wiring” offices or campuses, than at service providers rolling out to public hotspots. But the company’s position on the smart-versus-light access point debate is well worth unpacking.

While Cisco has promoted general purpose accesspoints coupled to upgrades to the switch in the wiring closet, a host of other specialist providers, such as Trapeze and Aruba have presented an alternative solution, where access points are pared down to the mimimum and all the intelligence is put into a specialised WLAN aggregator switch in the wiring closet. Even though other wired-network incumbents such as Extreme have gone the thin-access-point route, Cisco is right, and the others are wrong, says Kwan.

“Cisco says use full featured, standalone access points, and central management is the way to go,” said Kwan. “All newer players have said Cisco is wrong and Cisco’s approach cannot scale.”

Taking a leisurely year to assess the market, Foundry found merits on both sides, said Kwan, but the big drawback to the specialist aggregator switches is that they do not match the needs of most offices, forcing the customer to buy a lot of specialised ports they do not need. “Most traditional offices range from 15,000 square feet, up to 100,000. For most of them six to twelve access points are enough. If you buy a 24 or 48 port WLAN switch, you have lots of ports left over.” And those ports may not support standard features on other wired switches, such as QoS or VLANs, he said.

Foundry’s access point will cost $795, the switch upgrade will cost a flat $995 for 24 or 48 port switches. There is also a $1995 upgrade fee to pay to add wireless management to the Foundry IronView network management software. If you have spare Foundry ports for your wireless access points already, then it is clearly less expensive to go this way than buy a new specialist switch. If you need to buy new switch ports for your wireless installation, you would have to include the cost of a Foundry switch, which would make the economics a bit less compelling.

“A year ago a lot of wireless issues were still being heavily debated,” said Kwan. “If we had launched at the end of 2002, a lot of radio technology was almost at the end of its life and we would have had to tell customers that they would need to upgrade within six to eight months. Foundry made a conscious decision, to leapfrog current products. We are better in technology and have a lower price point than the leading players.”

As to the market for hotspot products, Kwan says there is a lot of hype. “There is no demanding app that says you have to have WiFi right now. When PDAs have more intelligence, people will get more usage out of it.”