A proposed standard could give IT managers control over all the Wi-Fi kit attached to their LANs. However, the standard represents a concerted bid to oppose Cisco’s wireless strategy

The arrival of Wi-Fi wireless LANs in the office could mean chaos unless IT managers get a consistent, central way to control them. A number of companies including Nortel, Trapeze, Aruba and many others have launched WLAN aggregation switches, and begun arguments about the best WLAN architecture. A new, proposed standard could start bringing order to the field in the next six months, but it is in direct conflict with Cisco’s Wi-Fi architecture.

A consortium headed by NTT DoCoMo and wireless specialist Airespace has proposed the lightweight access point protocol (LWAPP) to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standards body. This would simplify connecting access points to aggregation switches, allowing IT managers to introduce wireless networking throughout a building without being tied to one vendor.

Although the standard may take 12 to 18 months to be completed, it could bring order sooner, as vendors start making products that comply with the draft form of the standard. “Expect pre-standard solutions to be shipping in the next 3-6 months,” advised Jeff Aaron, senior marketing manager at Airespace.

“The standard could help vendors close ranks to become a meaningful alternative to Cisco, which continues to promote its view that ‘heavy’ intelligent access points are the only way forward,” said analyst Max Smetanikov of The451, in a report. Virtually every other vendor believes intelligence should be centralised, and kept away from the access point. Cisco was an early author of the draft proposal for a standard, but backed out and is now “scathing” about the concept, according to Smetanikov.

Even without Cisco, the standard will face other issues. As a wireless-related standard, it may overlap with the efforts of the IEEE 802.11 committees which standardised Wi-Fi, in particular the 802.11k standard which communicates information about access points across the LAN. An IEEE/IETF liaison exists, and the IETF work has been presented to the IEEE’s working parties. “The IEEE has already stated that there is no contention,” said Aaron.

Vendors with particular twists to the integration of access points may argue against a standard tha defines the architecture too closely – in particular the division of functions between access point and switch. “The LWAPP spec merely governs how APs and RF controllers communicate with one another,” said Aaron. “It does not dictate where the intelligence resides. That is an implementation issue addressed by individual vendors.”

The details of the standard are likely to change quite a lot from the draft specification, largely produced by Airespace’s chief technology officer Pat Calhoun. The crux is to recognise that access points, which function as layer 2 devices giving access to the wireless medium, also include layer 3 functions, which can be placed elsewhere on the network.

The eventual standard should include device discovery and automatic configuration, as well as access control and the management of users. Airespace has announced that it will not enforce three pending patents, including one called “Light Weight Access Point Protocol”, against any companies implementing an eventual LWAPP standard.

“From this moment on, it’s Cisco vs wireless switch vendors, fighting for the hearts and minds of enterprise customers,” said Smetanikov.