Cisco, Symbol upgrade wireless wares

Cisco Systems Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc., two of the leading makers of wireless LAN products, separately will roll out equipment this week that takes the technology to a new level.

Cisco will begin shipping 54M bit/sec products based on the 802.11a standard and its own 5-GHz Radiata chipset. Symbol will introduce Level 3 and 4 switching features into a box designed to give network managers more control over wireless LAN packets.

Some Cisco rivals began shipping 802.11a-based wireless LAN access points and network interface cards (NIC) based on the Atheros chipset about 10 months ago. Given Cisco's standing as the dominant network equipment vendor, its entry into the 802.11a market is expected to boost sales of the technology.

Cisco's Aironet wireless LAN business is consistently ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 brand in the enterprise market for 802.11b wireless LANs, which run at 11M bit/sec.

The new 802.11a Aironet products includes a module that plugs into the second slot of the existing Aironet 1200 access point, creating a "dual-band" access point that can handle 802.11b and 802.11a users. Cisco also is releasing a CardBus NIC, which will let any 32-bit client device with a slot for the credit card-sized NIC make a wireless net connection.

The Aironet 1200, sold as an 802.11b access point, lists for about US$1,000 and costs about $1,350 when sold with an 802.11a interface. Fitted with one 802.11a and one 802.11b card, the price is $1,500. The CardBus NIC costs $230.

Switched on

Symbol's switched wireless Axon product will have a chance to shine from the start, because it is being deployed as part of the NetWorld+Interop show network next week in Atlanta. In effect, Symbol has streamlined its access point product, reducing it to what executives call a wireless access port, which is scarcely more than a compact 802.11b (or in future 802.11a) radio.

End users with a wireless LAN card fitted into a laptop or handheld device connect via radio to the Axon access port, which is linked via wire to a standard Ethernet switch. A separate Axon device, called the wireless switch, plugs into the Ethernet switch. The wireless switch has software to support Level 2, 3 and 4 switching features and apply these to the wireless packets, which are then passed back to the wired corporate LAN.

The result: Among other things, network managers can, allocate bandwidth, create classes of service and set security features, based on groups of users or on the type of application.

Technically, Symbol executives say, the radio connection between the client device and the Axon access port remains a shared medium: In practice, all users connecting to a given access port have to split up either about 5M to 7M bit/sec for 802.11b or 17M to 22M bit/sec for 802.11a.

The 802.11b access port has a list price of $250. The wireless switch's price varies with the number of ports: $2,900 for six ports, $3,720 for 12, and $5,370 for 24. Symbol executives say companies will pay less overall for an Axon deployment because of the comparative low cost of the wireless access ports.

Other vendors have adopted a similar approach to wireless LANs. Proxim has an access point controller for centrally managing big wireless LAN deployments. Bluesocket has a line of what it terms wireless gateways that offer management and security features, including class of service, for large numbers of wireless users.

More on the way

The Cisco and Symbol announcements are only the latest of what's expected to be a flurry of wireless LAN advances over the next few months.

Later this fall, network executives can expect to see so-called combo-cards, wireless client cards that can attach to an 802.11b or 802.11a wireless LAN. A key requirement will be software that will handle this sensing and connecting, with almost no effort needed by end users.

Also expected are wireless LAN roaming agreements and customer information systems that let mobile workers use whatever wireless service provider is nearest, while the back-end billing is coordinated through their "home" providers.

By year-end, products based on new 802.11a chipsets will start to roll out, giving network executives more choices and probably leading to lower prices.

Yet another wireless LAN option will emerge by year-end: the first implementations of the IEEE 802.11g specification, which will boost the data rate in the 2.4-GHz band, today used by 802.11b, up to 54M bit/sec.

Cisco is working with chip maker Intersil on a joint reference design for a wireless chip to support 802.11g and the others.

One drawback is that 802.11g, like 802.11b, has only three channels, whereas 802.11a supports eight, allowing far more users on each access point. Cisco plans to have an 802.11g module that can be plugged into the 1200 chassis.

Vendors haven't announced pricing for the 802.11g products.

Later this year or early next year, vendors might introduce some security improvements in the proposed IEEE 802.11i specification. The IEEE is expected to approve 802.11i late this year or in the first half of next year.

Stronger wired equivalent privacy encryption and other media-access-control layer features of 802.11i, can be adopted by updating wireless LAN firmware. Other features, such as support for the powerful Advanced Encryption Standard, will require new co-processing hardware.

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