The WLAN (wireless local area network) switch market just got a bit more crowded. This time the new entrant isn't a startup but a convert from the gateway market, a segment sometimes viewed as a competitor to the WLAN switch market.

ReefEdge, known for its security gateways, is set to introduce a family of WLAN switch products that will specifically address enterprises with 100 or more distributed locations.

ReefEdge describes a system that offers most of the same RF (radio frequency) management capabilities of the other WLAN switch providers, yet ReefEdge allows customers to choose APs (access points) from Cisco Systems, Symbol Technologies, NetGear, Proxim, and others. Other WLAN switch vendors have been criticized because they require customers to buy only their APs for maximum functionality.

"They're wrong to say you need a proprietary AP to do this,"said Mark Juliano, vice president of strategy at ReefEdge, adding that more functionality is being built into standard APs today.

Juliano points to Cisco's IOS software, which allows access to a wide array of information about Cisco APs. For example, users can query the AP for information about other nearby APs it detects, or rely on IOS to monitor the channel the AP operates on, including how much power it outputs and which users are associated with it. "The data is there. What you need is the analysis engine, which we have in our switches, that uses that information to build the RF environment," Juliano said.

ReefEdge competitors are sceptical. "I'd be really apprehensive," said David Callisch, marketing director at Aruba Networks. "When you get into actually monitoring the airspace, it comes down to a function of (whether) the AP will support it, and today most don't."

ReefEdge collects data from APs by instructing the APs to switch to scan mode. Software RF management vendors such as AirWave Wireless and WaveLink use the same method, notes Chris Kozup, program director at Meta Group. "The problem is that whenever it's scanning it's not maintaining client connectivity," he notes.

Beyond supporting APs from any vendor, ReefEdge is also taking a unique approach to remote offices. The ReefSwitch 25 costs just less than US$1,400 and is designed for remote offices. The switch includes an AP and customers can also connect as many as three APs to the switch.

The small, low-cost switch performs functions such as authentication locally, rather than backhauling those functions to a centralised switch located at a potentially distant headquarters. The switch includes a local database that could act as an 802.1X authentication server. It can also authenticate against a remote RADIUS server but will download active users to authenticate locally the next time the user logs onto the network.

"The other vendors put just a thin AP at the remote site. That means if the WAN connection goes down, sorry, you're branch office just died," Juliano said. That's because that AP sends all traffic over the wide area network through a remote, centralized switch.

The ReefSwitch 25 communicates back to the centralised ReefSwitch 200A Appliance, forwarding RF monitoring information such as rogue detection and allowing remote configuration and upgrades. Users can limit the amount of bandwidth that communication requires; one ReefEdge customer with a remote office that relies on a 56Kbps connection has limited the connection to 8Kbit/s.

ReefEdge is also introducing the ReefSwitch 300, a 12-port switch. Users can direct connect APs to the switch or connect the switch to an existing Ethernet switch.

One capability the ReefEdge suite lacks that most other WLAN switch makers offer is network design tools. Trapeze Networks, for example, offers a sophisticated software product