Switch Wars

At last week's N+I show, biggest bets weren't being placed at the craps table or the roulette wheel but instead on who will come out ahead in the nascent field of wireless network switches.

In Las Vegas, the biggest bets weren't being placed at the craps table or the roulette wheel, but at Networld+Interop, the gathering of networking gurus that was also the coming-out party for a bevy of wireless startups seeking to cash in on the exploding Wi-Fi "switch" market. However, with a crowded field of players jostling for position and the looming entry of networking giant Cisco , observers are wagering most start-ups won't survive.

When Symbol Technologies introduced its Mobius Axon Wireless Switch in 2002, it gave birth to the term "switch" when speaking of managing multiple Wi-Fi access points. As more enterprises began adopting Wi-Fi in the workplace, a way was needed to centrally manage all of this gear. Soon Vivato followed with its ability to focus, or steer, radio beams to individuals, increasing the available bandwidth and the range.

Now only a few months later, seven or eight startup companies, backed by venture capitalist cash, have entered the field. Add to the mix, traditional wired networking vendors, such as Cisco, 3Com, Hewlett-Packard, Extreme, and Nortel, and competition reaches a new level of fierceness.

Trapeze Networks, with its Mobility Exchange switch to track and authenticate Wi-Fi users, says it has a 12-month deadline before the market is dominated. From Aruba to Symbol, the race is on to differentiate before a vendor is crowned "king" of WLAN switching.

But is it already too late?

"We expect the market to consolidate quite dramatically over the next year," says Chris Kozup, an analyst for the market research firm META Group . While there is room "for one or two startups to succeed," Kozup says "existing infrastructure vendors" such as Cisco, Extreme or Symbol Technologies are in the best position to succeed.

Dave Passmore, research director for the Burton Group , says, "if Cisco jumps in, startups will be the losers."

Cisco, already a big part of traditional office networking and still the number one provider of enterprise-class wireless network infrastructure, is investing in Bandspeed, a company similar to Vivato in its development of "beam-steering." Rather than produce its own gear, Bandspeed is planning on licensing its technology to other companies. Cisco, by either licensing the chips or buying the company outright, could quickly become a dominant figure in wireless switching. While Cisco has pursued other Wi-Fi markets, such as the consumer sector (through its pending purchase of Linksys), the company remains mum on its plans to enter the wireless switching arena.

Passmore believes Cisco will simply incorporate WLAN switches as part of its already huge installed base of Ethernet switches and Aironet access points. Wi-Fi 'switching' "may just become part of Ethernet," says the analyst.

It is too early to handicap the winner of any Wi-Fi switch wars, according to Passmore. He points to the absence of any independent testing of the devices and says observers must instead rely on PowerPoint slides only at this point.

"This kind of shoot-out could be ugly," says the analyst. The best technology doesn't always predict the winner. Marketing and sales may be a better predictor, according to Passmore.

Hindering many of the startups, says Passmore, is their inability to work with existing access points from Cisco, Symbol or others. Many "switches" need "fork-lift" upgrades requiring enterprises to toss existing gear. Such upgrades make these switches suitable only for "greenfields," or enterprises without any pre-existing Wi-Fi gear.

Wi-Fi switches are useful only when there are many access points requiring central management. If beam-steering technology from Vivato or Bandspeed catches on, Passmore says the need for wiring-closet-bound WLAN switches could be greatly reduced.






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