Extreme CEO: Wireless and wireline can coexist

Wireless LANs will be just another form of access to enterprise networks, says Extreme Networks's CEO Gordon Stitt.

In Las Vegas for a meeting with over 2,000 Avaya Inc. sales reps who will be reselling Extreme switches and routers alongside Avaya's voice-over-IP products, Stitt is upbeat about Extreme's plan to co-opt WLANs into the enterprise.

The company will begin shipping in volume this quarter its line of "unified access switches" designed to handle both wireline Ethernet packets and wireless packets. Extreme announced earlier in 2003 its strategy to add software to its switch products to centralize WLAN administration and management, and integrate them fully into wireline infrastructure.

Large enterprise firms, especially, he says, will have to adopt this approach because networks are no longer about connecting just computers. "They're about connecting all kinds of devices: IP phones, PDAs and others we haven't even thought of," Stitt says. Radio monitoring will make it possible to track and locate equipment, such as medical gear in a big hospital. Those kinds of wireless uses, and the proliferation of wireless devices, will create huge productivity gains for enterprise users, he says.

What Stitt envisions can't be fulfilled by treating WLANs as separate "overlays" to an underlying wired net, he says. "Overlays create a lot of complexity," Stitt argues. "Having two separate nets, with separate management and security and deployment issues "just doesn't make sense." Enterprise will only deploy WLANs and wireless devices on a large scale if they can be part of one corporate net, he predicts.

Only by making WLANs part of one corporate network can they be given the performance and resiliency that network executives demand in enterprise nets.

He's dismissive of Cisco Systems Inc.'s plans, announced in June, to create "wireless aware" switches, an approach that on the surface sounds similar to what Extreme is doing.

"It's pretty different," he insists. Cisco has an installed base of WLAN users who've bought Cisco's Aironet access points, each one a network element that has to be managed and monitored, each one with a version of Cisco's IOS network operating system.

"If you could start today with a blank page, what would you do?" he asks rhetorically. "It's pretty clear you'd start with a switch (as the basis of the WLAN topology). But Cisco doesn't have this. They have an installed base of access points." Stitt predicts that Cisco users will find it a difficult process to migrate from using so-called smart access points to a switch-based model, as Cisco introduces a wireless-aware version of IOS for its switches starting in 2004.

New chip technologies, which are being incorporated into Extreme's switches, will handle automatically some of the key security issues currently plaguing WLANs, he says. "New chips are just coming out that handle Triple DES and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard, both of which are rigorous crypto schemes)," Stitt points out.

You can protect a WLAN with a VPN today, he acknowledges. But "VPNs are a pain to administer, " he says. "With a VPN, in effect, you have to 'dial up' each WLAN connection." The new chips will eliminate the need for VPNs by encrypting everything that moves over the radio waves, he says.

Stitt acknowledges there are software issues remaining in handling large numbers of users associating with an access point and moving between different access points. The changes needed to handle this in the network itself will take time, he says.

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