Motorola arrived late at the 802.11n party, but it hasn't missed the fun. We had thought the grand diva of Wi-Fi switches was past it, but our first glimpse at its product shows a company ready to strut its stuff in the Draft N fashion parade, and pick up a dance partners in the form of a user.

Symbol, the company Motorola acquired in 2006, was the first to sell a Wi-Fi switch, way back in 2002, but fashions are fickle. This week, when it launched 802.11n products - it was a late starter in this year's "in" Wi-Fi technology

That said, it's certainly not too late to be doing this. Rumours circulate that existing 802.11n products are either not as good as they should be, or are still in short supply. And, according to analysts at Dell'Oro Group, the new Wi-Fi standard is actually causing such uncertainty that it is partially responsible for a temporary stalling in the Wi-Fi market.

What's on offer?

There are some distinctive features to Motorola's 802.11n products. Firstly, the AP7131 is a three-radio AP. Now, that's been done before in 802.11abg access points (for instance by Colubris, but it's the first time for 802.11n, as far as I know.

As you can see from the picture, it's a spiky little critter. With MIMO's multiple channels, it has six antennas. All three radios can be on 2.4GHz or 5GHz, and all can use MIMO, with two antennas each. Motorola expects two radios will be used for data (either for access or for a mesh backbone), while the other radio acts as a monitor/probe.

It's backed by a wireless switch, the RFS6000 which has enough capacity for up to 48 n access points, and up to 2,000 users.

Using wireless for a mesh, and making it part of the backbone is going to happen more often, to save wiring costs and avoid upgrading the wireless network, says Kevin Goulet, director of product management in Motorola's enterprise mobility business. It also makes it resilient because these APs can automatically set up an alternative route to the backbone amongst themselves, if one gets cut off - that's an application of the Adaptive AP the company launched last month.

motorola ap

Another interesting feature - the switch has a PCI express expansion slot. You can put a 3G data card in there, and have a back-up connection for your WLAN switch if the WAN link goes down. In future, this could also be used for a WiMax connection. Another PCI slot could accommodate an IP PBX, according to Motorola.

Finally taking Wing?

It's worth mentioning that, features like these, including mesh and 3G were promised by Symbol in May 2006, before Motorola acquired it.

When Symbol announced its "Wi-NG" architecture at 2006's Interop event, we expected very little to come from it. The company had a declining market share, and was letting other vendors take the lead. Wi-NG was strategy, not product, and it looked like smoke and mirrors.

For a year after the acquisition, we heard nothing, but in late 2007, Motorola's Wi-Fi arm started to show signs of life. It started to push its Wi-Fi switches and, this being a litigious corner of the IT industry, sued rival Aruba. In February we saw a new AP for branch offices.

Now, with 802.11n on its books, the company may have returned to parity with the rest of the Wi-Fi market.

The PoE question

Like all enterprise Wi-Fi vendors bringing 802.11n to market, Motorola has had to come up with an answer to the power over Ethernet (PoE) question.

Users filling large offices with Wi-Fi like to power their access points over the Ethernet connection - it saves on wiring costs, which can be quite high if you are putting the access point into a ceiling space which doesn't have power sockets.

The existing PoE spec, IEE 802.3af, doesn't deliver enough power for two radios say all the vendors - except Siemens, which has apparently managed to get its AP to go to full-speed 802.11n without extra power. The others either offer pricey proprietary power (Cisco), extra LAN links (Trapeze) or the option to reduce functions (Aruba and Colibris).

It looks like Motorola falls into the latter camp: "The standalone AP-7131 AP automatically adjusts to available power options," says Goulet. If there is only 802.3af power available, it falls back to using a single radio. This happens automatically, since the AP can detect when the power falls below the necessary level.

Take your partners

Updated:And finally, Motorola has a user story. As always with 802.11n, it's in education. Stephen Choi, director of technologyfor San Marino Unified School District in California is "thrilled to be deploying Motorola’s new AP-7131 802.11n access points," and "looking forward to providing students and faculty with a fast, reliable wireless network that allows us to meet our educational goals.”

Motorola told us that Carnegie Mellon University, already an Aruba customer for the 802.11n network on its main Pittsburgh campus, had opted for Motorola on its Silicon Valley. That's been clarified now - CMU is a Motorola customer, but the Silicon Valley campus is only using 802.11abg.