Despite a year of sales, the market for 802.11n fast Wi-Fi is still evolving, with vendors doing everything in their power to take share away from each other. The latest moves include Ruckus, which is slashing prices to get small-to-medium customers away from other vendors, and Aruba, which has launchNiethed technology to increase 802.11n performance.

These are not minor tweaks. Aruba is promising 200 percent performance increases, even on top of the 802.11n speed boost, and Ruckus is cutting prices by up to three-quarters.

Between them, these offers underline the sea-change with 802.11n. It goes faster than existing 802.11g networks and is more reliable. It opens up a little-used frequency band (5GHz) as well as the overcrowded 2.4GHz band, and vendors have suggested it is finally capable of replacing Ethernet in the access part of the LAN.

How can 802.11n get faster?

Aruba tends to sell to larger businesses and seems to be the strongest competitor to Cisco's dominant position in Wi-Fi, claiming to have around 25 percent of the market for thin 802.11n access points, according to figures from analyst Dell'Oro Group.

Aruba reckons it can boost Wi-Fi throughput by up to three times, with a new version of its Adaptive Radio Management (ARM) software (version 1.0 appeared two years ago). The figure sounds impossible, but Aruba's had its claims investigated by wireless guru Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group, and his White Paper is on the Aruba site. 

"It is quite clear that Aruba's ARM 2.0 has real benefits in educational settings," says Mathias. The test used four access points and 101 assorted notebooks, in a lecture hall at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But we expect that the benefits noted will carry over to any densely deployed environment, which we believe will clearly become the norm as users migrate from wired connections to wireless installations."

ARM 2.0 has a couple of tricks. It manages co-channel interference, limiting the problems caused when nearby access points are on the same channel, but the main thing it does is to handle the likely mix of clients on any wireless LAN. In particular, it stops older, slower devices getting in the way of new ones, and moves clients onto the best channel possible, according to Roger Hockaday, Aruba's director of marketing EMEA.

"11a/b/g slows down 11n," says Hockaday. The slow clients hog time on access points, by making them transfer data at a slower rate. "So how do organisations that have invested in 11n benefit from the greater reliability and greater performance, while maintaining support for their legacy clients?"

Clients tend to default to the crowded 2.4GHz band, because it is more likely to be available, but the 5GHz band is less crowded and has more channels, he says: "Optimising the performance of all clients, old and new, means steering those clients that can connect at 5GHz to the 5GHz band."

ARM 2.0 also guarantees airtime for downstream traffic, so clients don't lose out by slower aggressive nearby clients. The system is dynamic too, so it can respond quickly to changes which might free up space on neighbouring access points.

Or make 802.11n cheap

Ruckus, selling to smaller businesses, takes the opposite approach - making 802.11n very cheap. Ruckus Wireless is cutting its price by up to three-quarters, for companies which replace other vendors' 802.11g wireless LANs with its 802.11n networks. Under the "Mad Dog" programme a user with a switch and ten 802.11g APs from Meru, Trapeze or Colubris, can pay £2055 to swap them for a ten-AP Ruckus network that would normally cost $8566.

To get that price - and similar discounts, on bundles of 25, 50 or 100 APs - the customer has to send the rival network equipment to Ruckus for recycling.

Why such a deep discount? Like every other vendor, Ruckus wants to get its kit taken seriously, and keep growing as the industry shifts from 802.11g to 802.11n. But Ruckus could have an image problem: its 802.11g systems are highly-regarded (and Techworld Recommended) for small businesses, but when it announced its 802.11n kit, it went a different way to the industry. Instead of opening up the 5GHz band, it plans to offer multiple channels in the 2.4GHz band, using directional beams from its smart antenna system.

"While many vendors tout the benefits of moving over to 802.11n, the reality for many enterprises and partners is that this is simply too expensive and too complicated," says James Calderbank, director of enterprise sales EMEA for Ruckus Wireless. He believes 2.4GHz is perfectly adequate, and the company has just started backing its kit with a lifetime warranty.

Ruckus says its beam-forming antennas can match dual-band 802.11n performance at a lower cost. Other vendors are sceptical, of course. "An enterprise company whose 802.11n is only on 2.4GHz is an oxymoron to me," said Trapeze's director of marketing EMEA, Michael Coci. Another Trapeze employee said bluntly: "Ruckus is a one-trick donkey."

Trapeze, under new management at cable company Belden is emphasising the reliability possible with 802.11n, using a marketing slogan, "NonStop Wireless" to promote version 7.0 of its Mobility System Software (MSS), launched in April.

Meru claims a lead, Cisco sits tight

Still other vendors have other approaches. Meru is selling its single-channel approach, which it says can increase throughput and decrease complexity by putting all access points on the same wireless channels(s). It also sidesteps the co-channel interference problem. It's been selling 802.11n hard, and has around 100 public installations - a combination of technology and implementation that got it the number one position in 802.11n, in an analysis from ABI Research.

In amongst all this, there's one vendor that's not said anything much about 802.11n lately. Cisco converted to 802.11n late, but still achieved dominance, with 50,000 AP sales by early this year. Its access point is more expensive than the other vendors', and based on older silicon, but it is focussing on making appliances that make Wi-Fi easier to install rather than improving the underlying technology.

Aruba and the rest claim to have eroded Cisco's market share in 802.11n below the normal level for any market where Cisco has a presence, but still the giant doesn't look worried.

Users worry about cost

Which way will users look? Some research from yet another vendor suggests that Ruckus may be onto something. Cost is a major concern for companies moving to 802.11n, according to Colubris. In a survey of 200 senior IT professionals, the company found that around 70 percent are planning to move to 802.11n - but more than half of those companies are concerned about costs.

However, users also need moves to simplify wireless LANs, as they don't understand the issues, according to Colubris. Nearly half (44 percent) of the upgraders expect to be able to swap out their 802.11g access points and run the same number on a given WLAN controller - while the fact of the matter is that most controllers lose scalability, supporting a lower number of 802.11n APs.

"Architecture really does matter, and there really are different costs," says Colubris' director of marketing Carl Blume. Colubris users can simply replace 802.11abg access points with 802.11n models, without a switch upgrade, since a distributed architecture means not all traffic goes back to flood the wireless switch, he said. He's also scathing about Ruckus ("a very low-end system") and Aruba ("the 802.11n upgrade will require a switch upgrade").

Users are also worried about powering their access points over Ethernet, he said. They don't want to go over the PoE budget and have to add extra power to the access points. Colubris' response is to run full-speed 802.11n on the 5GHz band, and keep the 2.4GHz band for legacy 802.11b/g clients - a solution sounding very much like what Aruba promises.

Colubris is in a slight marketing hiatus. It is merging into a new owner, Hewlett-Packard, and we expect to see some more enterprise-grade 802.11n integration there shortly.

For now, though, the marketing of 802.11n is as convoluted as ever, but users have choices to make. Check any wireless equipment does what it claims. Check it meets the needs - and projected needs - of your users. And check it meets your budget.