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11/9/2007
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Aruba Joins 802.11n Fight

No. 2 Wi-Fi vendor Aruba comes out swinging at Cisco as it finally announces its 802.11n gear.

Aruba networks last week became the last of the major enterprise wireless LAN vendors to introduce hardware for systems based on the emerging 802.11n spec for Wi-Fi networks.

To Aruba's mind, 802.11n will usher in the long-awaited shift to an all-wireless world, a transformation the vendor sees as critical to competing with Cisco Systems, which controls some 65% of the market for enterprise wireless networks. Organizations are "reaching the point where they don't need to use wired anymore," says Michael Tennefoss, Aruba's head of strategic marketing.

Executives at Cisco, which released its own "Draft 2-compatible" 802.11n gear in September, aren't quite so bullish on the migration to wireless. "I don't know an enterprise customer out there that is intending to move to an all-wireless network," says Ben Gibson, director of mobility solutions at Cisco. "I do know plenty that want to be both."

In any event, the 802.11n spec is a major transition point for enterprise wireless networking, particularly for companies that still haven't deployed Wi-Fi. The new version of the standard will offer five times the throughput of existing Wi-Fi networks, plus increased stability and reliability. Final ratification of the spec by the IEEE, already delayed several times, is now expected some time late next year or in 2009.

Both Cisco and Aruba (still a distant second to Cisco in the WLAN market) have invested millions of dollars in developing 802.11n gear. Sales of enterprise WLAN infrastructure, including controllers and access points, will grow to $7.6 billion in 2011 from less than $3 billion in 2006, says IDC senior analyst Daniel Corsetti. Almost all that growth will be in 802.11n gear, and Aruba wants to seize the opportunity to grab market share from Cisco.

Universities have been the first to adopt full-out new 802.11n systems. Aruba is touting a 2008 deployment by Carnegie Mellon University as a leading indicator.

"802.11n will be a true inflection point," says Dan McCarriar, assistant director of network services at Carnegie Mellon, that will enable "a campus wireless network that isn't just an adjunct to the wired network, but a potential replacement for most applications."

HEATED WI-FIGHT
With Aruba's announcement, the rhetoric between the competing vendors continues to escalate. Aruba promises customers greater flexibility through the ability to do software upgrades, and Cisco claims that its modular design offers better investment protection. While both statements are more or less truth- ful, neither argument bears much relevance as enterprise buyers begin to chart their 802.11n plans.

Other issues do matter, like the debate about power-over-Ethernet. Aruba says its new access points will work fine over existing PoE systems. That may be so, but where distance causes excessive power loss, Aruba's access points will be forced to shut down one of three radios. Cisco uses a discovery protocol between certain of its switches and access points to deliver extra power for the higher-throughput .11n gear--but doing so requires an all-Cisco installation.

IT managers can expect plenty more "he said, she said" exchanges in the coming months. The best plan, unless you have an urgent need, may be to wait for the vendor market positioning to give way to proven installations.

"Experienced network professionals are content waiting for second-generation 802.11n offerings," wrote Dave Molta last month in his comprehensive review of the new systems ("802.11n Wireless: Is Now The Time To Deploy?"). Last week's news from Aruba probably doesn't change that notion.

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