Interview: Cisco betting big on wireless LANs

Cisco Systems has a lot riding on Bill Rossi. One billion dollars to be exact. Rossi, who runs Cisco's wireless network business unit, says the billion dollars refers to how much revenue Cisco hopes to be pulling in annually from this market in three to five years. The company, which got into wireless LANs through its acquisition of Aironet about three years ago, owns roughly one-third of the market. Rossi recently spoke with John Cox about Cisco's plans.

Q: One billion dollars translates into a lot of wireless access points. How will you do it?Wireless LANs will be standard network technology for every country, and we see major productivity enhancements with these nets. At Cisco, we all have wireless notebooks, and we spend a lot of time moving around meeting with each other and traveling, or working from home. Being able to use your computer and computing resources away from your primary workspace becomes indispensable. Wireless will be part of every network design, just like a router or a switch is today.

Q: But wireless completely lacks the management tools that are routine in wired nets.This is really a new area in the enterprise environment. One big problem is there are lots of devices. And in a wireless LAN, they're all separate elements. Each one has to be changed, configured, managed. There are not a lot of tools available to do this today. We have our Wireless LAN Solutions Engine, which scales to manage about 500 devices. We're looking at scaling this even more. We're also working with partners like Wavelink, which has a set of management tools, and AirMagnet, which has site survey tools.

But the real management problem is 'How do I get control of the [radio frequency] domain?' This is unique with wireless. Is the access point transmitting? Are the client devices working? Is there interference in the area? And then being able to take action on all that. Existing management products developed for the wired net can't be readily adapted to [radio frequency] management.

Q: So how does Cisco propose to solve this?Our vision is to make wireless nets structured. In wired nets, you had a way to manage it and a cookie-cutter way to deploy it, for example, with wiring closets and 100-foot cable runs. Today, wireless is just "strewn around" like early Ethernets were. This [structured approach] is also the way to deploy and manage wireless LANs.

Q: Any more details?

Watch this space.

Q: You make it sound simple, but there are a number of reasons why large-scale wireless LANs in the enterprise are rare.The main obstacle has been security. That's what has prevented a lot of enterprise companies from deploying wireless. [But] you can deploy secure wireless LANs today.

The key remaining issue is how to get a truly interoperable security solution that works across [different] clients and devices. It's not going to be a one-vendor solution. [It will happen] when security truly becomes a standard, when it's well-defined and well-tested.

Q: And until then?

We've been working with key partners to license our enterprise security suite. We offer an open, free licensing scheme. [Wi-Fi chipmakers] Atheros and Intersil have licensed it and then create reference designs that show you how to build, for example, a PC card for a laptop. We are part of these reference designs.

Q: Won't the fact that 802.11b has only three nonoverlapping radio channels limit dense enterprise deployment?It will be. Today, with wireless being deployed as an overlay on wired enterprise nets, they're not taxing wireless performance. But capacity will be a problem as you also run voice over wireless. Eventually, with adapter cards that can support all three wireless LAN standards, 802.11b, 802.11a and 802.11g, you'll have lots of capacity. You can start then to think about pure wireless networks. But that's in the future.

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