Wireless cuts loose
- 10 May, 2006 10:57
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.
Data follows voice into a mobile world
Wireless use for data will take hold in the same way that mobiles captured the voice market and telematics will grab the attention for the huge opportunity it offers.
So said David Spence, CEO of Unwired, which is focused on rolling out its network across Australia to cater for all these devices.
Unwired, which operated initially in the residential sector, is spreading its reach into business in the Sydney and Melbourne markets. Spence said, since it began in Melbourne some months back, it is growing 15 percent a week and the three towers it opened with will expand to 60 in the future to extend its coverage. Spence said the aim is for Unwire to reach 45 percent of the population with WiMax by early 2008. If the company can access funding from Connect Australia, wireless broadband - as the fastest and cheapest way to get comms to less populated areas - could be extended to some of the outer regional areas and would be a boost to both emergency services operations and business competitiveness.
He said business has realized the benefits of fixed line wireless and is now venturing into the mobile wireless arena, adding - somewhat tongue in cheek - that you can't inadvertently dig it up, cut through it or find cockatoos have damaged it.
With wireless laptops already winning the affection of road warriors and WiMax chips on the way for laptops and video and surveillance cameras, it's a continuation of the 'personal' trend that started with mobile phones and will just keep going.
Spence said Unwired, whose biggest investor is Intel, will provide network coverage to 63 percent of the population via the 2.3gHz and 3.4gHz frequencies.
Telematics, where one mobile can talk to another mobile, has huge potential, Spence said. It has evolved from early use in vehicle transport, and will be a boon to local advertising for small businesses and tradesmen, like plumbers, able to target their messages to focused, local customers.
When it launched its services in Melbourne recently Unwired donated five wireless modems and five laptops to Challenge, a charity which assists sick children and their families. An initial commitment also offers 12 months of free Internet services. The laptops are loaned to patients undergoing cancer treatment and are also available for use by any family members anywhere within the Melbourne coverage area, including inside or outside hospitals and in the city area. Generic Unwired e-mail accounts have also been set up to help keep patients and their families in touch.
Many of the children supported by Challenge have to remain in their hospital rooms or in bed while undergoing hours of treatment - the laptops and wireless modems can be brought to them giving them a welcome distraction and a means of keeping in touch with family and friends. Children can log on to their laptops from anywhere within the hospital or its grounds.
Unified wireless management kicks off
A combination of trends -- the post 9/11 concern for providing strong communications for first responders, the increasing dependence on mobile phones and the growing need for high-speed, ubiquitous Internet connectivity -- is creating a market for unified wireless management.
One growing area of that market is managing multiple frequency groups in large buildings and campuses in diverse verticals, including colleges and medical facilities. Among those facilities are the large sports arenas in the US that have hosted the last three Super Bowls, such as Jacksonville's 74,000-seat Alltel Stadium, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars and host of Super Bowl XXXIX.
"All the metal in the walls of a stadium like ours blocks wireless signals from outside the facility," says Nick Dornford, IT manager at SMG, which runs the former Gator Bowl. This cuts off vendors, the media and potentially first responders in the event of an emergency from the wireless communications they depend on. The problem is that one technology -- for instance, a wireless telephone microcell or a Wi-Fi network -- would only meet part of the need. And installing and managing three or four different wireless networks becomes prohibitive in both cost and complexity.
For an answer, Alltel Stadium and the stadiums for Super Bowl XXXIIX and XXXX turned to Gulf Coast Real Estate in New Orleans, which installed integrated wireless systems from MobileAccess. The wireless system is designed to support all these wireless technologies off a single antenna structure, with central management and security and a combined, fibre-based backhaul.
Alltel Stadium installed the system before the Super Bowl and, Dornford says, "proved to be a pleasant surprise for everyone". Its impact was demonstrated inadvertently when the new system was shut off briefly for testing during a media briefing a few days before the game. "Suddenly everybody was rushing for the concourses, because they couldn't get mobile phone signals in the building," he said.
And the media weren't the only ones that loved the new wireless capability. "The Jacksonville police and fire love it, because they can use their Nextel phones in the facility for instant communications," Dornford says. The network also supports their two-way radio frequencies, giving them dual-communications capabilities. And vendors quickly discovered the advantage of both cell and high-speed wireless Internet linkages for their business communications.
The electronic media brought the latest generation of wireless TV equipment, running over their own telemetry frequencies and creating the potential for remote monitoring and control of cameras. "We can inject their signals into existing distributed antenna system, making it a seamless transition for them when they arrive to cover events here," Dornford says.
More important to the media at the moment, he says, is that Wi-Fi makes it much easier to send changes to game graphics back to their New York studios directly from their laptops and then they can insert the edited graphics into the signal stream. The media still uses mobile satellite trucks for the long-haul communications, but now they can move more of the control up to the booth, simplifying their operations.
Incidentally, it also provides mobile phone service for paying attendees at the events in the stadium, although SMG does not promote that or offer any special services to the public over the network at this time.
The cellular carriers often make their decisions on whether or not to be included at the last minute, and a Super Bowl is a secure site. The combination often leaves little time for installation of the cellular part of the package before the NFL locks the site down, giving no time for repairs. As a result, the stadium needs to know that the system will work the first time.
It also needs a flexible system that can easily adjust to changing needs. For instance, for the Super Bowl, Alltel had six T1 lines connected to its wireless system. After the event, it was able to take out four, going back to its normal two T1s, without disrupting the network.
And the advantages are not all on the front end. MobileAccess runs on a fibre backbone that provides very high-speed network access. "Gulf Coast put in several extra fibre strands for us when they installed the system," Dornford says. "That gives us an excellent infrastructure for data transport." The stadium vendors also like the Wi-Fi front end and fast network core for their data communications.
In the future, Dornford says, multichannel wireless communications with a strong fibre backbone will become normal in stadiums. But for now, it is a real attraction for those who have to work at the games.
"For the working press particularly, the speed advantage can mean uploading your story in five seconds instead of two hours if you have pictures," Dornford says. "It can let you get back to your hotel two hours after the game instead of at midnight."
Wireless vendors target corporate nets
Wireless offerings set to debut at Interop are targeting corporate customers looking to add high-bandwidth gear to core networks. Bluesocket is scheduled to introduce the first multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO)-based wireless LAN (WLAN) access point for corporations. Foundry is scheduled to announce WLAN switches designed for future high-bandwidth 802.11n networks.
MIMO is a technique that boosts WLAN throughput from the 20M-to-25Mbps range in today's 802.11a and 11g networks to more than 100Mbps when MIMO radios are on both sides of a connection. It's the heart of the IEEE 802.11n standard now in development. Airgo Networks introduced the first MIMO chipset in 2004, and the third-generation chip is widely used in access points aimed at the small office/home office and residential markets.
Bluesocket is one of the first vendors to build a MIMO product for enterprises, the BlueSecure Access Point 1700. The Airgo chipset is Wi-Fi certified, and existing 802.11b and 11g clients can connect to the 1700 point without any changes. But the MIMO technology is designed to improve range and throughput even for these clients.
That's what attracts some enterprise users, such as office supply company Staples.
"The amount of access points you have to install in a six-story, two-tower facility can get quite large," says Shawn Nerssessian, a Staples IS consultant. "Something like this will help out tremendously in terms of [reducing] the amount of access points and [increasing] the coverage."
The 1700 access point is scheduled to be available at the end of July, priced at $US795, compared with $395 for the vendor's existing 1500 point.
Meru Networks, which is scheduled to add products that let customers connect a WLAN infrastructure wirelessly to a network core, has written code for its access points and controllers to support backbone connectivity. The Meru Wireless Backbone System wirelessly connects access points to Meru Radio Switches in wiring closets, or interconnects the switches. The switches have four, eight or 12 radios, and Meru's software aligns the channels between them to aggregate bandwidth.
One Meru customer who likes this idea is Ken Winke, whose title is "convergineer" for Optimus, a Chicago-based company that does postproduction work for TV commercials. "We could tie together three 11a channels and have this big, full-duplex pipe [between switches]," he says. "That's really cool."
Meru's software is being put into new products, such as the AP150-WB, priced at $US995, and the RS4000-WB switch, priced at $2995. Software upgrades for existing products are available, at $595 for a single AP208, and $1595 for the RS4000 switch. The products are scheduled to ship in July.
Anticipating future 802.11n-based access points, Foundry plans to launch two WLAN switches with Gigabit Ethernet and Power over Ethernet (PoE) ports to deliver AC power to access points. The switches can aggregate multiple 100-plus-Mbps connections from an access point on one wire.
The FastIron X IronPoint switch comes in 24- and 48-port versions, each with 10/100/1000Mbps support. The FastIron SuperX IronPoint is a chassis-based WLAN switch with as many as 192 10/100/1000/PoE LAN ports.
Foundry also plans to launch IronPoint Location Manager application software. The Windows software taps into existing Foundry IronPoint 200 WLAN access points and uses triangulation to track the location of WLAN radios.
The IronPoint Wireless Location Manager, costs $8000. Pricing for the FastIron X and SuperX Wireless Switches will be announced when the product ships. Both products are expected to be available in the third quarter of 2006.
John Cox and Phil Hochmuth