Aruba's acquisition of Network Chemistry, has brought the Wi-Fi security space into view, by reducing it from four main competitors to three. Or should that be from three to two?

Commentators have tended to lump together Network Chemistry and the three "Airheads", AirTight, AirDefense and AirMagnet, but one of the four may already be moving has always been a bit different - at least that was the view of AirMagnet's co-founder and chief technology officer Chia Chee Kuan, when we spoke to him a month ago.

All four companies have made strikingly similar claims in the past, as can be seen from 2004/5 reviews of Network Chemistry, AirDefense, AirMagnet, and interviews with the new kid, AirTight.

They also all suffered rather from the perception that wireless security is an add-on for wireless networks, rather than wireless security (in the form of prevention) being a requirement for all secure networks. When wireless LANs took off more slowly in the enterprise than expected, the first option left them selling to a small group with wireless rather than a larger group without it.

"We provide a different level of infrastructure," says Kuan - the company does RF performance management as well as security, he says, and this has made a good niche for its Enterprise Analyzer products, which are also sold by Cisco and Aruba, alongside their wireless security products.

AirMagnet dates back to 2002, making it one of the older of the wireless security players, and its Enterprise Analyzer is a kind of hybrid, with its performance ability, says Kuan. "Other vendors are security focussed," he says. "They deploy a set of sensors to do security management, and you might need more sensors for performance management. We do it all in one."

Other vendors might see those as two different areas, but AirMagnet doesn't: "It is difficult to tell if bad wireless performance is due to dirty air or a denial of service attack," says Kuan. If you're seeing low performance, you should consider both possibilities.

"AirMagnet started with mobile products, but quickly moved to enterprise systems, handling performance, security and regulatory compliance," says Kuan. "They're all equally important to us". The mobile analyser is still a profitable product in its own right, he says.

A marketing focus on performance wouldn't be enough to make AirMagnet that different though - what's the underlying technology distinction? Kuan reckons AirMagnet's strength is its sensors' intelligence. Instead of lightweight probes, AirMagnet has ones with plenty of memory and processor, that do "heavy lifting work" to send higher quality data to the central console.

"Our network bandwidth is much smaller," says Kuan. AirMagnet's probes send digested statistics rather than the raw data sniffed from the air, he says: "Other devices just forward all packets."

This makes his solution more scalable, with a given network and server able to handle more probes and more data. "If you forward all packets to the server, it gets more heavily loaded. If you have thousands or tens of thousands of sensors, AirMagnet is better."

That's all in his words of course, and any claim made by any of the wireless security bunch always leads to counterclaims. If past experience is any guide, we'll be hearing immediately from the other Airheads (and possibly from Arbuba) with their scalability and intelligent sensor stories.

But do users care?

But these hotly-contested features might all be irrelevant, since users have so far been a bit ambivalent about buying dedicated systems for wireless security or performance. AirMagnet believes this will change now, for two reasons.

First, systems are getting more mission critical. "A year ago, would the user need security features on casual access to the Internet over the WLAN in the lobby? Probably not," says Kuan. "But if you're putting wireless LAN in a manufacturing plant factory floor, or using it in healthcare to save people lives, then you do."

"We thought adding security and performance features would drive adoption," says Kuan. "In fact it is the other way around."

Technology changes

Secondly, the need for performance monitoring will grow rapidly in the next year or two, he says, because of a technology change - the arrival of the fast 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. It opens up the 5GHz band, where there are more channels, and it improves performance. Although it's not being adopted in the enterprise yet, (though some vendors expect it soon), consumer draft-N kit is out there.

802.11n will raise performance expectations, and when these aren't met, it will require better monitoring, says Kuan: "The first thing to happen will be users asking 'Where is my 600 Mbit/s?' That's where AirMagnet comes in." There will be complexity in how N options interoperate, which he expects to help with. "The key is to find out where are you losing bits and correct it."

The new standard uses multipath to get more data throughput, and has a beam-forming options. "Even our own survey will have to be adapted for the N world," says Kuan. Apart from anything else, he points out that the client takes a more active role in the N world.

Also, because N has more channels, users will be more likely to need dedicated Wi-Fi probes in order to cover them all adequately.