The Thin AP "Weight Debate"

The need for multiband functionality and other strategic services requires more, not less, intelligence at the edge.

Dave Molta

September 24, 2004

3 Min Read
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We're facing similar thin-versus-fat issues with wireless LANs, except in this case, the access infrastructure devices--thin APs--have replaced the PC as the focus of our weight-watching efforts.

A Simple Start

Symbol Technologies kicked off the debate in 2002 with Mobius, a wireless LAN infrastructure that dumbed down the AP, off-loading many processing requirements to centrally managed switches. Given the immense financial and administrative challenges faced by IT pros who tried in vain to scale enterprise networks using conventional smart-AP technology offered by Cisco, Proxim and others, Symbol's solution was a breath of fresh air.

For many reasons, Symbol didn't fully execute on that vision, finding limited success mostly in its vertical market strongholds. In the carpeted enterprise, Cisco continues to dominate. However, Symbol's efforts paved the way for a cadre of start-ups, including Airespace, Aruba and Trapeze, to build on the promise of thin APs and centralized management.

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Despite their own success in the face of slow enterprise WLAN uptake and Cisco's dominance, the start-ups also are learning that Symbol's strategy of dumbing down the wireless edge probably isn't the best strategy. The need for multiband functionality, intelligent radio resource management, real-time intrusion detection, location-awareness and other strategic services requires more rather than less intelligence at the edge. Yes, you also need more smarts at the distribution and core layers of the network, but scalability is enhanced by off-loading as much as you can to the intelligent edge. As a result, all these vendors have been selling systems that tightly integrate APs and switches, forcing IT pros into proprietary products from the edge to the core.

Keeping Costs in Line

The bottom line for any technology is controlling total cost of ownership, by reducing capital equipment costs or by moderating ongoing operational costs. Today, the start-ups have a significant competitive advantage in both acquisition and operating cost, but as Cisco fills its AP management holes, the future battleground may come down to acquisition cost alone. Ask Cisco's Ethernet competitors how much fun that is.

Given the market clout Cisco wields because of its dominance in Ethernet switching, WLAN start-ups face significant challenges, especially in Fortune 1000 accounts where Cisco is viewed as a premium-priced player that delivers high-quality products and services. For smaller WLAN vendors to survive, they must find better ways to compete.

For starters, they must work together to define a new class of commoditized, high-performance APs that adhere to standard protocols for interacting with centralized wireless switches. Rather than going thin at the edge, go muscular, incorporating advanced technology at reasonable prices. They can leverage commoditized AP reference designs offered by chip manufacturers, focusing more of their attention on centralized intelligence. Most important, by advancing standard APs, they'll have a better chance of getting conservative IT pros to consider alternatives to Cisco. Otherwise, they may find themselves going the way of Windows Terminal makers.Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

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