Cisco's Airespace acquisition may be a boon to channel

Cisco Systems expects its purchase of Airespace to open doors for channel partners that haven't been able to set up wireless LANs on their own.

Some in the industry say the impact may not be as dramatic as that. But the Airespace technology should make life easier for Cisco's many value-added resellers and system integrators.

The Airespace acquisition, which closed in March, brought Cisco a wireless LAN switch that centralizes capabilities such as security and lets access points become simpler "lightweight" devices. Cisco officials said the wireless switch and Airespace's software can also simplify WLAN setup, a job that they said often forces even large system integrators to hire outside help.

Determining how many access points are needed at a particular site, where they should be installed and what channel and power level each should use is a job that requires special radio-frequency expertise, said Dave Leonard, vice president and general manager of Cisco's wireless networking business unit. For example, network designers have to know how far an access point's signal will reach, taking into consideration different types of walls and features in a building. Securing traditional access points can also be complicated because of the need to have each one support the same standards and smoothly hand off an authenticated user to the next access point, Leonard said.

Most resellers don't have that expertise, and training can be expensive in terms of fees and employee time, so many have had to hire others to do that work, he said.

With the Airespace technology, setting up a WLAN requires much less expertise, Leonard said. Airespace software can analyze a simple floorplan of a site and recommend where to place access points. After the network is in place, it can continuously monitor and adjust transmission power, channel assignments, traffic load allocation and coverage holes, said Alan Cohen, senior director of product management. Likewise, security is handled centrally, so it's not necessary to configure and maintain a lot of settings on each access point.

With those capabilities, channel partners need a lot less expertise to sell and set up WLANs, Leonard said. That new freedom comes just as demand for WLANs starts to extend beyond vertical industries such as medical care and retail to general enterprises, according to Cisco.

NetXperts, a Cisco channel partner that provides wired and wireless networks to enterprises in the US, has done a lot of its installations in hospitals but is seeing growing interest from general enterprises, said Tom Hagin, vice president of sales.

The system integrator is one of the few equipped to assess a customer's site for optimal design of a WLAN, Hagin said. The 25-person company has been hired by major system integrators to perform wireless assessments, he said.

To set up an effective WLAN, an integrator needs to look at what kinds of devices employees will be using, where they are likely to use them and what applications they will try to use, Hagin said. An on-site radio propagation test is needed in most cases -- even in a conventional office, if there are going to be heavy demands, such as employees with WLAN phones, he said.

Hagin says some Airespace technologies, such as those with the capability to track the location of devices from a network operations center, will help channel partners. But he doesn't think the new configuration capabilities will take the place of a site assessment.

"There are intangibles that are very difficult to predict without actually coming on-site and doing a physical test," Hagin said. "At some point, you're still going to have to train yourself."

Network resellers have a market in serving companies that are too big to simply buy an access point at a retail store but aren't big enough to have an in-house networking staff, said Craig Mathias, principal at advisory and systems integration company Farpoint Group.

Cisco's channel partners will benefit from the Airespace acquisition because the company's product line is more advanced and easier to configure than Cisco's existing gear, Mathias said. But he doesn't see the addition of Airespace making the difference between whether a reseller will be able to set up a Cisco WLAN. The difference in the expertise required is not that great, he said.

Most current WLAN gear is relatively easy to work with, Mathias said. Whoever sets up the network needs to have networking skills and know about the usage patterns but doesn't need much knowledge of radio. Some resellers add unnecessary services, either to increase their revenue or because they don't really know what they need to provide, he said.

"There has been a tendency to load up on labor-intensive services that really aren't required," Mathias said. For example, a site survey isn't necessary except in special settings such as hospitals or "pathological" buildings that tend to obstruct radio signals, he said.

JDL Technologies, a system integrator in Minneapolis, already has planned and deployed both Airespace and Cisco WLANs. Although the Airespace deal doesn't open up a new type of job to JDL, it will make it easier to manage WLANs, said CEO Tom Lapping.

For one thing, a self-optimizing Airespace network can correct interference problems that may be solved by something as simple as a cordless phone carried into a room. With traditional access points, technicians have to be brought in to figure out what the problem was and adjust the access point, often after the interference is gone, Lapping said.

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