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Is The Wired Edge Dead? Meru Says Yes

As the WLAN industry continues to try to land body blows against the wired network edge, the message that "yes, you can go all wireless" continues to be reshaped and trotted out again and again. The more open-minded among us tend to cautiously buy into the notion of organizationally ditching the UTP in favor of high-performance wireless, while others can't quite bring themselves to drink the Kool-Aid yet. With Meru Networks' announcement of its  Mobile Edge wireless platform, the "virtual cell" folks take their turn at trying to change the hearts and minds of network managers who may be considering Ethernet switch refreshes.

Drawing attention to the cost and complexity of keeping closets full of switches fresh, Meru's director of product management, Joel Vincent, walked me through the promise of the Mobile Edge model. Pointing out that the typical wired-edge network offers little to an increasingly all-mobile client base, Vincent makes the case for evolving away from typical LAN topologies. Citing an IDC report stating that access devices sold without Ethernet ports will exceed those with the familiar RJ-45 in 2011, it's Meru's conjecture that the growing number of tablets and smartphones simply have to impact thoughts on switching and telecommunications rooms. If you agree with Meru's definition of the "new" network edge, it's all about the freedom to move between locations within a company (both local and distributed), and push voice, data and video everywhere from the same client device. The desktop PC? That is so yesterday, especially if it plugs into a network jack when it could have a USB network adapter attached for connectivity. And if you don't need patch cables, you don't need switch ports, and the new edge is the air wherever you happen to be.

The philosophy of "where we are in the evolution of the network access layer" aside, Meru's Mobile Edge platform sports some pretty beefy claims and specs. Using the "industry's highest capacity 4 Radio, 3 stream 802.11n platform," promises of 1.8Gbps of bandwidth in every square foot of the cell strike me as typical "marketing math," but it can add up if you keep an open mind. Remember that Meru has the All One Channel Virtual Cell thing going on, and put three of these virtual cells on different channels in the same space, and you start to reach lofty numbers. In reality, even if you can realize half of Meru's claims via the new Mobile Edge gear when you step outside of the theoretical, you're still doing extremely well for any kind of traffic you want to push. Mobile Edge promises high capacity, dense device count support, and a list of optimizations with somewhat exotic names aimed at mobile devices doing multimedia apps.

So what is the Mobile Edge framework? Simply put, it's Meru's new AP400 series of access points, and new code on current-generation control appliances. Available in the second half of 2011, the AP400 will offer three-stream 11n wireless in indoor and outdoor access point models. A USB port enables 3G back-haul or an additional radio option, as well as several configuration and features options aimed at making users and administrators alike forget about the RJ-45 connector. And like Cisco and Aruba, Mobile Edge "cleans the air" with optional spectrum analysis. (I detest this sort of phraseology. It's one thing to recognize the presence of noise and interference, but remediation can be a whole other ball game.)

Whether Meru can truly help kill off switched Ethernet remains to be seen. Yes, eliminating switches can save money during upgrades and by eliminating power and management costs. But one thing that Meru and other players in this space need to be sensitive to is that there is a human element to be considered when ditching switches. Usually there are personnel and a technical culture behind those switches, and thoughts of going all wireless can be very threatening to those living the life of wired networkers. I'm not sure how you work assuaging the fears of staff likely to be displaced by a new access paradigm  into a glitzy ad campaign, but it is curious that some of the same people in charge of purchasing (or disapproving) solutions like Mobile Edge are often the very ones running wired networks. I don't have a suggestion for softening the fact that we're dealing with evolution, but I do know that hard charging "ditch your switches!" campaigns may be a bit off-putting in some cases.