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Wi-Fi Switches Scale Down

In mid-2003, several seemingly identical start-ups all announced the same "unique" product: a wiring closet switch with IEEE 802.11 processing capability that promised to simplify the management of large Wi-Fi networks. Eighteen months later, the survivors are still moving in tandem, and they've identified yet another new product category: Wi-Fi switches for smaller businesses or branch offices.

Whereas vendors Trapeze Networks and Airespace originally offered 20 and 24 ports for their Wi-Fi switches, respectively, both are now offering switches into which network managers can only connect three access points (APs). Both say they've found a new and emerging market, one that sits between the large enterprises that usually choose Cisco Systems and the small businesses that often choose Linksys, Netgear, or other vendors focused on the home. "We're not aiming at SMBs," says Jeff Cohen, vice president of marketing at Airespace. "This is for the small enterprise."

This means the new switches offer the same functionality as their larger counterparts, allowing network managers to treat two or three APs as one. But these aren't simply scaled-down versions of the original products. Vendors are also adding new management software to enable a geographically distributed management system. Network managers can configure hundreds of APs in different cities simultaneously, without having to send any technical personnel to the branch offices. Cisco also offers this capability, but very clumsily: The traffic from the remote APs must be tunneled through a WAN link to a central Cisco switch, which adds routing hops and bandwidth bills.

But the shift to smaller customers also shows that the start-ups are scaling down their ambitions in the face of Cisco's growing market dominance. While every start-up says it's thinking big, wireless stalwart Proxim is more candid. "We're not aiming to compete with Cisco in Fortune 1000 enterprises," admits Ben Gibson, Proxim's vice president in charge of corporate marketing. "We only see Cisco struggling where there's price sensitivity." The company's strategy for competing with the giant is to target the same niche vertical markets that have been buying wireless gear since before Wi-Fi was popular.

Like Cisco, Proxim is still skeptical about the whole idea of centralizing AP functionality, whether at a switch that controls two or 20 of them. The problem is that all the switches are proprietary, only working with APs from the same vendor. The IETF is working to develop a standard called the Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points (CAPWAP), but no one supports it yet. Airespace does claim to support its predecessor, the Lightweight AP Protocol (LWAPP), but the only vendor that also claimed LWAPP support, Legra Systems, has filed for bankruptcy.