A little-known software vendor will take the first step next week toward helping equipment makers build what it calls the next generation of enterprise wireless LANs.

NextHop is releasing software that OEMs can use to create their own WLAN switches and access points. The code stems its acquisition of Legra Systems, once part of the pack of WLAN switch start-ups, last autumn.

The vendor has made a successful, if largely hidden, business supporting a small army of Cisco competitors. Its GateD Layer 3 routing and Multi-protocol Label Switching software is used by 150 network equipment makers, including Enterasys, Nortel and Riverstone.

By year-end, the company plans to combine the Legra code with GateD so that new Ethernet switches will be able to handle both wireline and wireless traffic. Deploying a WLAN will no longer mean having to buy separate boxes: Increasingly, the existing Ethernet infrastructure will simply "do" WLANs.

Such integrated switches are now feasible, says Craig Mathias, principal with The Farpoint Group, a wireless consulting company. "But the whole switched area covers a broad range of functions. It's likely NextHop doesn't have everything yet," he says.

Far from it, insist WLAN rivals. "The Legra software base was not competitive with the leaders in this space," says Dan Simone, CTO for Trapeze Networks. "It is not likely that NextHop has been able to dramatically change this situation in the short period of time they have had access to the software."

Today, enterprise WLANs are separate networks, an overlay to an existing wired infrastructure, Mathias says. "With true integration, the boundaries between the two become very fuzzy," he says. "For example, the management and security databases become integrated."

The first step toward that is this week's release of two software products, one for switches and one for access points.

NextHop's software includes a version of the proposed Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points (CAPWAP) protocol. CAPWAP is intended to be an IETF standard, replacing the proprietary protocols vendors use for the control and management of WLAN access points by back-end switches.

As part of this effort, NextHop is working with the chipmakers whose processors will power these boxes. One partner is Broadcom, which announced in January a new iteration of its LAN switch chip architecture, dubbed StrataXGS III. The new gigabit and 10Gbit chips will support IPv6, a programmable security framework, WLAN services and fast roaming between access points.

Rivals say integration is slow and might never achieve what's being promised.

"There will always be some level of product integration," says Keerti Melkote, co-founder of Aruba Wireless Networks, a WLAN switch vendor. "But WLAN switches won't be subsumed within a Catalyst or Catalyst-look-alike anytime soon."