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Xirrus Primes the 802.11ac Pump

Ratification of the 802.11ac wireless standard is about a year away, but that hasn't kept Xirrus from maneuvering for market share today. Xirrus is a wireless array company. Unlike the typical controller-based, microcell architecture from the likes of Cisco and Aruba, Xirrus replaces some quantity of thin access points with a multiradio module that is often described as "a giant AP." This approach has given Xirrus a unique product and a small share of a lucrative market that the company would like to see expand.

In a recent announcement that adds two more products to the wireless array product line, Xirrus has unveiled its new 802.11ac Pre-Order Program, which it says is the first in the industry. New and existing Xirrus customers can get healthy discounts (though the company didn't specify how healthy) on 11ac products that are not yet available. In fact, the products ordered today under the new program may not be available until well into mid-2013. Customers can buy 802.11n now in any new arrays and get 11ac when it ships. Alternatively, they can pre-buy 11ac modules for arrays they currently own.

Xirrus positions the offer as a way for customers to buy arrays today while also getting an 11ac migration strategy as part of the deal. Xirrus has to try approaches like this because WLAN customers tend to jump ship only in cases of extreme dissatisfaction with a vendor, or because a deal from a competitor is so sweet the customer feels compelled to bite. And the bigger the WLAN is, the harder it is for customers to start over with another wireless provider. Vendor lock is the rule in the WLAN industry today, and incumbent players are doing everything they can to maintain their positions. For instance, this month Cisco announced a single management system for its wired and wireless networks.

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That said, Xirrus has found markets where its unique multiradio arrays are used in densely crowded venues instead of microcell APs. Sometimes the array becomes an island in the middle of a competing product because the network manager didn't want to go all-Xirrus. The advent of 802.11ac may open another door for Xirrus because many IT shops will evaluate their upgrade options. I know I will.

Though Xirrus may be the first to put 11ac on discount before it even arrives, it's not the only WLAN vendor planting 11ac seeds. Cisco's top-performing 3600 series access point has been on the market since early 2012, and it features a slot for an 11ac module, with expected approval in early 2013. I have a growing number of 3600s in my own environment, but I have yet to hear Cisco make much noise about 11ac (though I'm sure that will change).

I'm glad to see a wireless vendor such as Xirrus take concrete steps toward an 11ac deployment. By connecting dollar signs to products yet to ship, the company is making us start to think with our wallets. Let's see if it catches on with other wireless vendors.