Best-of-Breed or Single-Vendor Simplicity?

best-of-breed products and single-vendor, integrated network solutions. Nowhere is this felt moreso than in the enterprise WLAN space.

Dave Molta

November 12, 2004

3 Min Read
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This issue hits home in the enterprise WLAN space, where networkmanagers have often been forced to play the role of systems integratorto meet a broad range of needs for performance, manageability andsecurity. There are countless examples. A major university with over1,000 Cisco APs (access points) turns to Bluesocket for security andmobility services. A large medical center dissatisfied with themanagement capabilities on Proxim APs turns to Airwave for management. Adefense-oriented research lab worried about possible intrusions on its3Com WLAN looks to AirDefense for security monitoring. You get the idea.

We've long favored a more integrated approach, and it's one of thereasons we've been supporters of emerging wireless switch vendors likeAirespace, Aruba and Trapeze. All these vendors designed their systemsfrom the ground up to meet the full range of management needs. Whilemany analysts focus on the low-cost thin APs that are offered by theseproviders, it's the core system functionality that really counts. Butit's fair to ask whether you are compromising on certain best-of-breedfeatures by selecting products from these vendors.

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We've seen this in our labs when evaluating wireless security monitoringcapabilities. While we were impressed by the capabilities, if not thecost, of distributed monitoring solutions from AirDefense and AirMagnet,we found the integrated security monitoring capabilities offered byAirespace, Aruba and Cisco lacking in comparison. To a degree, that'sunderstandable. AirDefense and AirMagnet live and die by the quality oftheir monitoring capabilities. For the system vendors, it's just onefeature on the competitive matrix.

We're about to take another look at security monitoring, as we evaluatethe latest versions of enterprise WLAN infrastructure offerings. Basedon what we've seen so far, there is evidence of improvement. However,AirDefense and AirMagnet keep raising the bar. It makes you wonderwhether it will ever be possible to attain feature parity using anintegrated solution.Cisco appears to be conceding this battle, to a point, by announcing apartnership with AirDefense this week, even though product won't beavailable until March 2005. It's somewhat ironic that Cisco would gowith a partner for wireless IDS (intrusion detection services) to sitalongside a separate product that provides IDS services on the wirednetwork. After all, Cisco's biggest criticism of the wireless switchvendors is that an overlay solution does not provide an adequate levelof service integration with the wired infrastructure.

This pitch has been effective with many in the analyst community,leading some to predict the imminent demise of some of Cisco's mostcredible competitors. That's sweet music in the ears of network managersin many Cisco shops who really don't want to look elsewhere forwireless. But a significant number are looking at competitors. When Irecently asked a senior executive from Aruba Networks what percentage ofits 500-plus customers have Cisco wired infrastructure, I was a littlesurprised with his response: almost all of them.

An objective assessment of today's IT industry makes it clear thatbest-of-breed does not always win out over single-vendor solutions.Sometimes, the decision to go single-vendor is rational. But in manycases it reflects a reluctance to carefully evaluate the complex rangeof technical issues, understandable when people are working 60-hourweeks already. It's a compromise I've made myself over the years,especially when objective information is lacking. But if your goal is toselect the wireless solution that best meets the needs of yourorganization, you owe it to your employer to carefully consider alloptions. That doesn't always lead to a multi-vendor overlay solution,but when it does, trust reality over hype.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

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