Wireless cuts loose

Symbol plans pan-wireless infrastructure

Symbol Technologies plans to build a single system that lets enterprises combine many types of wireless networks.

At the Interop trade show in Las Vegas last week, the company presented its Wi-NG (Wireless Next Generation) architecture, designed to make sense of the many radio technologies coming to enterprises in the next few years.

Wi-NG takes the concept of a wireless LAN switch, which puts Wi-Fi access points under central control, and extends it to RFID (radio frequency identification), Wi-Fi voice calling and other technologies, said Chris McGugan, senior director of marketing for the wireless infrastructure division of Symbol.

Wi-NG eventually will handle WiMax systems and interact with cellular networks, and Symbol could extend it to other technologies such as ZigBee, a short-range, low-power wireless technology, McGugan said. Interference, device handoffs between networks, and centralized management are among the challenges it is designed to tackle.

The architecture will appear first in the form of software upgrades for Symbol's AP5131 access points by July and for its WS5100 wireless switch in September. The AP5131s will gain the capability to form a wireless mesh network to get to hard-to-reach areas. The WS5100 will gain Layer 3 switching capability, which allows for multiple subnets within a building or campus.

Also in September, the company will introduce RF management software that can show what's happening deep in an enterprise's radio environment, such as coverage strength. By the end of the year, Symbol will roll out the centrepiece of Wi-NG, the multiple-technology device it calls an RF switch.

Combined Wi-Fi and RFID networks aren't really needed in typical enterprises, though they could be useful in specialized environments such as retail stores and factory floors, said Gartner analyst Rachna Ahlawat. In those settings, RFID is used to collect asset information and Wi-Fi may transmit that data, sometimes on one device. Combining networks could help solve management headaches, she said.

In offices, Symbol's announcement has more to do with finally delivering a Layer 3 wireless switch, which competitors such as Cisco Systems are already offering, Ahlawat said. Layer 3 switches are needed in office buildings to handle many clients roaming among floors, she said.

A key feature of the Wi-NG architecture is the ability for clients to roam among Wi-Fi access points and on to other networks at the right time. Rather than letting a client device stay connected to one access point until the connection goes very weak, "switch-assisted roaming" can make the shift happen when the access point reaches a certain load or the application the client is running can't be supported.

Wi-NG can also apply that roaming intelligence to moves from one type of network to another, though the full capability will come only with Symbol clients, McGugan said. One piece of Wi-NG will be the ability to carry a combination Wi-Fi and mobile phone into the office and have a call automatically move onto the wireless LAN. Symbol will use client software from startup DiVitas Networks to make this happen. Any dual-mode device with the client will be able to do a basic handoff, he said.

The new software for the AP5131 and WS5100 will be free to currently supported customers. The RF management platform will cost about $US$1000. Pricing has not been set for the RF switch. All the products will be available worldwide.

Stephen Lawson

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