Network Computing is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

The Battle For WLAN Differentiation

The recent announcement that security vendor Fortinet is entering the enterprise wireless market highlights the ubiquitous availability of WLAN hardware. However, unlike the major players in the market, Fortinet does not have buildings full of RF engineers designing new radio hardware from the ground up. Today, just about any vendor can build (or have built for them) wireless access points based off of reference designs from the radio chip-makers. Add some controller and management software, and you have a basic wireless solution. The barriers for entry into the WLAN market are rapidly eroding, and when a products becomes a commodity, it usually lowers the price as new players and approaches appear in the space.

Historically, the battles between wireless LAN vendors have largely focused on the architecture:  thin access points vs. thick, centralized controller vs. distributed architecture, single channel vs. cellular deployment.  The rise of 802.11n brought these architecture debates to a fevered pitch, with some vendors predicting fork-lift upgrades of racks of controllers and mass defections of customers to new vendors and architectures. Of course, none of this transpired, and ultimately each vendor has figured out a way to integrate the latest standard within their respective platforms.

Centralized controller architectures have moved to more of a hybrid model, moving some functionality to the access points while retaining centralized control for other functions. From a hardware perspective, the real differences between vendors is blurring and if a few more non-traditional WLAN vendors like Fortinet join the fray, those lines will blur even more.
What does all of this mean for your network and your deployment?

Above all else, it's time to rethink the evaluation and the RFP process for enterprise WLAN purchases. With wireless hardware becoming widely available, purchase decisions are more about how the various solutions integrate with your overall architecture and the applications that will run across them.  Like its wired-switching counterparts, the value of a WiFi deployment will soon be more about the enabling of applications for your end-users and less about the underlying hardware that makes it work.