Cisco's recent launch of a Wi-Fi switch module for its enterprise Catalyst switch attracted attention. This was both because it represented a major development (arguably a U-turn) in its SWAN wireless strategy and because it vindicated the wireless switch approaches start-ups, such as Airespace and Aruba, while providing them with heavyweight competition.

Not surprisingly, Extreme Networks also follows an "integrated" approach much like Cisco's, adding wireless functions to existing wired equipment. Equally unsurprisingly, wireless switch start-ups, who do not have an installed base of wired switches, tend to sell additional wireless kit.

Cisco's "integrated approach," supports higher-level functions like security and quality of service across both wired and wireless nets, using technology like the recently announced wireless switch module for the Catalyst 6500 switch, said Ron Seide, senior product line manager for Cisco's wireless networking business unit, speaking at a Wireless LAN debate at the CeBit America trade show in New York.

"If you're big enough to need this, you've got a Catalyst switch"
"What if you don't have a Catalyst 6500?" asked Alan Cohen, vice president of marketing and product management at Airespace.

Cisco's research shows that companies of the size that might need Layer 3 mobility are likely to have the high-end 6500 already installed, replied Seide.

Aruba's Keerti Melkote countered that Cisco's approach still requires wireless access points that are heavy on both functionality and cost, and any security-related functions would mean further costs in the form of additional blades for the 6500. Aruba favours a "thin" access point with centralised management.

Seide retorted, "The so-called 'thin' access point is just as fat as other access points," with as much processing power and other hardware overhead. Plus, customers still have to buy the corresponding central controller or it doesn't work. "It's just redistributing the costs companies pay," he said.

Seide added that the Catalyst 6500-centric approach is just the beginning and hinted that other, less expensive equipment would support WLANs in the future.

Extreme has actually been promoting Cisco's kind of integrated solution for a while. "We introduced the idea of unified access more than 12 months ago," said Extreme's vice president and general manager of LAN access, Vipin Jain.

He argued that security and other functions "need to work seamlessly across wired and wireless." Otherwise, he warned, two parallel networks would be created, adding complexity.

"A lot of things (Jain) said are true - if you're trying to protect your switch," Cohen said. "This new access method (wireless) has different physical properties" and therefore requires a separate approach. Telecoms carriers keep packet forwarding and radio frequency (RF) management in separate devices, he pointed out, and other types of devices are kept separate as well.

"If you are doing complex functions like firewalls or RF management, you have to run a different set of computational calculations," he said. "Last I checked, the (IBM mainframe) S/390 is not a Web server, either." (Actually, Alan, it is, or can be).

Security and standards
According to the start-ups you need specialist equipment to handle issues of security and to meet changing standards. Aruba was surprised by the activity among employees and attempted intruders in an early installation, making intrusion detection capabilities a high priority.

"Very quickly, there were a lot of intrusion attempts on the wireless LAN," said Melkote, Aruba's co-founder and vice president of product marketing. For security, then, Aruba relies on its central server for enforcement. "The users are not trusted but the access point is trusted," Melkote said.

Technologies that Airespace thought were fairly standard actually turned out to not be quite mature, said Cohen. He cited differences among WLAN clients and unidentified challenges with RADIUS authentication.

The debate will clearly run for some time, with vendors pushing different aspects of the enterprise wireless problem. One thing is clear though, with Cisco in the field, large users will take enterprise WLANs more seriously. But there will be more competition to provide them.