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Breaking Away From Single-Vendor WLANs

Proxim's announcement this week of a new AP (access point) and management suite bucks the industry trend toward integrated, hardware-based, wireless switching systems. At first glance, Proxim's move looks a bit defensive, and it probably is. The company has had a tough run of it over the past couple of years and its Wi-Fi product line has lost much of its luster. But looking beyond those problems, the concept of integrating smart APs with third-party management software might not be such a bad idea.

The company is partnering with Wavelink, a wireless management system provider, and Ekahau, a developer of sophisticated RF site survey and location-based technology. While this assemblage of diverse components is unlikely to deliver the sophistication or service integration found on Proxim's competitors' offerings, it plays well to both the company's installed base and others. That's because the Wavelink management system is capable of managing not only Proxim APs but also APs from Cisco, Symbol and others.

This modular approach to wireless networking is important for some organizations. For example, in the retail market--one of the most popular wireless vertical markets--physical locations are often relatively small and widely distributed. In many cases, bandwidth and roaming requirements are modest and wireless networks are often designed with coverage rather than capacity in mind. Minimizing the number of APs helps reduce deployment, management and upgrade costs. It also allows flexibility across generations of technology from specific vendors as well as products from different vendors.

If you talk to wireless network managers at universities, you also see interest in this type of product and other modular wireless solutions. While some universities have embraced wireless switches, most have stuck to more traditional designs using smart APs from a variety of vendors and some kind of centralized management platform--either Wavelink, Airwave or an internally developed system. When asked about the newer Wi-Fi switching platforms, a common response is "no thanks, I'm not interested in getting locked into a single vendor."

Given Cisco's dominant position as a supplier of wireless gear to higher education, there's some irony to this statement. But even at Cisco's biggest higher-education accounts, there's often a strategy of playing the field a little, through open RFPs and the constant threat that they COULD jump ship to a competitor if Cisco doesn't take care of them. While Cisco offers its own functional and affordable management platform, the WLSE (Wireless LAN Solution Engine), many sites opt to go with a third-party management system.

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