Analysis: Nortel jumps into the wireless LAN market

Nortel Networks's introduction of its first wireless LAN product offerings is an interesting play by the network equipment vendor. Company executives say the idea behind the products is to extend the vendor's wireline infrastructure family. Another way to look at it is adding an alternative form of access - wireless - to that infrastructure.

Ken Dulaney, vice president of Mobility at Gartner Group, says Nortel's wireless introduction is a step that all the wireline vendors will have to take.

"There's still a lot of real estate to be covered (in the enterprise wireless LAN market)," he says. "What it's all about is giving users a choice of how to connect to the Internet: wired and wireless. All the edge switches that ring the network will have to have this dual capability."

The reason this dual capability is so important, he says, is because it creates a "seamless" Ethernet environment, and extends to wireless the same level of security, functionality, and reliability that now exists in the wired LAN.

The one exception, Dulaney says, is Cisco. While Nortel (along with many wireless LAN and wireless LAN "switch" vendors) is in effect enabling wired switches to deal with wireless traffic and manage radio transmission to some degree, Cisco seems to be still betting on a more distributed idea. Nortel et al, are pushing intelligence from the access point to the box in the wiring closet. Cisco is packing the wireless access points, which actually create the radio link with client devices, with a range of management features and network intelligence.

Dulaney's characterization raises some interesting challenges for the wireless LAN market and for enterprise network executives.

The history of wireless LANs is one of very small-scale, proprietary networks, often in warehouses, or similar sites. That began to change, and change rapidly, with the ratification of the IEEE 802.11 standard. Finally, there was a standard for wireless networking, a key step in spurring enterprise adoption.

In talking with enterprise users, it is telling how quickly, and counter-intuitively, wireless LANs become complex when they consist of more than just a few access points. Add to this the sudden realization by network executives that they have to deal with an Ethernet standard for wireless networking that almost completely lacks the tools, features and functions they associate with wireline Ethernets.

And right now, there is no easy work-around to the complexity or the lack of tools.

The wireline network vendors like Nortel would seem to be ideally suited to address this enterprise pain point. But they are approaching this problem from the standpoint of the wireline net. They know switching. But how well do they know radio?

Conversely, a flock of startups as well as security gateway vendors like Bluesocket and Vernier, and the traditional wireless LAN vendors such as Proxim and Symbol, are jumping into this confusion with the concept of a "wireless switch." But almost none of the many vendors who have announced these products are actually shipping them, and many won't be until mid- to late-2003.

These are all promising developments. But right now, that's all they are: promises that are developing into products.

In the meantime, enterprises that want, or need, to deploy wireless LANs have their work cut out for them. For the foreseeable future, effective wireless LAN management, security and operations will require a lot of coordination, a bunch of third party software applications, and some reliance on manual procedures.

Advances in net technology, it seems, can often make some parts of networking simpler. They just never seem to make networking easy.

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