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802.11n Is Here. Get Ready For A Wire-Free Enterprise

As the new 802.11n spec, with its increased speed, coverage, and reliability, intersects with a broader selection of vendor offerings, wireless is becoming a viable platform for mission-critical network connectivity.

CAREFUL STEPS
But don't feel too bad for Cisco--no enterprise WLAN vendor is claiming to replace wire at the core or distribution layers, and besides its wire-side dominance, Cisco owns more than half of the enterprise WLAN market with its wireless gear set, originally from Aironet and later supplemented with its Airespace acquisition. Chris Kozup, manager for mobility solutions at Cisco, emphasizes that the company is making the most of its leadership in both wired and wireless with a "unified" network approach that blankets the office with Wi-Fi while keeping a few wired ports at every workstation. Nice if you can afford it. Cisco is clearly cautious in its pronouncements regarding the all-wireless office. Don't look to the WLAN gear leader to be in front of this charge.

No. 2 switch vendor HP, which mixes some of its own Wi-Fi gear with licensed technology, is also approaching the all-wireless office carefully. Andre Kindness, Americas security and mobility solution manager for ProCurve networking, says HP's customers are driving that stance. Companies are looking to reduce their operational costs through a consistent management system that covers both wireline and wireless and provides product longevity, Kindness says. However, such management doesn't yet exist. Cisco talks about a unified network, but it's not yet providing integrated management. HP openly discussed the problem of inconsistent management tools between wired and wireless networks, and we see it making the most credible progress of any of the "we do both wired and wireless" players. Other vendors looking to cover these bases include Nortel Networks, which says it's developing its own 802.11n gear--essentially shunning its OEM partner, Trapeze Networks--and Enterasys, Extreme Networks, Foundry Networks, and Juniper Networks, all of which are OEMs or resell wireless products.

Meanwhile, overlay vendors such as Aruba, Motorola, and Trapeze treat the wired network as more or less a dumb transport for their wireless traffic. It makes for easier sales to the wireless-oriented parties in IT organizations, but this stance leaves those who must manage both with a less-than-easy feeling.

Another angle enterprise switch vendors play is to suggest that all-wireless is a better fit for the remote or branch office, rather than main sites, appealing to interest in this architecture while protecting their wire-side revenue. Most also deliver some variation on the message that IT should be about "providing flexibility to the business"--in other words, preserving wired connectivity where it exists and delivering wireless where it's wanted. Tim Purves, CTO of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, says it's his department's aim to "align technology with business workflow processes." While that's a familiar mantra, if those processes are tied to immobile approaches that ignore the productivity increases and workflow improvements possible via a pervasive wireless network, IT must step up and champion a new way forward.

Fortunately, not all enterprise switch vendors are stonewalling. Trent Waterhouse, VP of marketing for Enterasys, says his company sees wireless as a strategic component of its business and is evaluating WLAN players with an eye toward an acquisition. Juniper is shopping around, too; it was spurned by Meru Networks, which also acts as an OEM for Foundry, on at least one occasion, say industry sources. No matter--Aerohive, Bluesocket, Colubris, and Xirrus stand out as attractive acquisition targets for enterprise switch vendors that lack their own wireless products. Trapeze might be a good fit for Nortel, if it decides to turn to its former OEM partner rather than build its own 802.11n gear.

Impact Assessment: 802.11n And The Wire-Free Office

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