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Cisco Adds Wireless Network Alternative

Airespace's 'thin' access-point architecture complements Cisco's offering

Cisco Systems expanded its wireless portfolio last week when it revealed plans to buy wireless LAN switch vendor Airespace Inc. for $450 million in stock. The deal gives weight to a wireless LAN architecture, advanced by Airespace and other Cisco competitors, that uses switches to centrally control and manage so-called "thin" wireless-access points.

Cisco's market-leading Aironet wireless LAN product line and its structured wireless-aware network architecture are designed for very large networks. They use intelligent, or "fat," wireless-access points that are integrated into a wired network and include a host of features and functions. Wireless LANs that use centralized switches usually are installed as overlay networks and generally aren't as tightly integrated with a company's wired network.

By buying Airespace, founded in 2001, Cisco gains a product line that includes wireless LAN controllers, or switches; access points; wireless LAN management and location software; and security capabilities such as intrusion detection. Cisco plans to offer the Airespace line alongside its other products and, over time, converge and integrate the two product lines, company officials say.

Kent Hargrave, CIO at Overlake Hospital, a 253-bed facility in Bellevue, Wash., uses Cisco technology for the hospital's wired network, but he chose Airespace's wireless LAN technology. "When we would roam from one Cisco access point to another, we would lose the connection to the application and have to reauthenticate," he says. "With Airespace, roaming worked seamlessly." It may take awhile for Cisco to integrate Airespace's technology into its products, Hargraves says, but "I'm hoping this integration will help in managing my network."

Gaining Share, pie chartAn Airespace wireless LAN system can cost substantially less than a Cisco system, depending on the configuration and number of access points, says Aaron Vance, a senior analyst at the Synergy Research Group. "Cisco had been evangelizing against centralization for wireless LAN architectures, which was holding up the market a little bit," he says. Vance describes the battle between thin and fat access points as a "religious war."

Cisco's current approach provides more capabilities in an access point, but those access points are more difficult and costly to deploy and manage. However, Airespace's thin access points, which are basically just radios, result in the "complete dumbing down of the edge of the network," Vance says. "Eventually, we will find some sort of a middle ground, where there's some intelligence at the edge and some intelligence in the core of the network."

Cisco has a history of buying technology companies to enter new markets or broaden its product portfolio. Cisco gained leadership in the wireless LAN market after it bought Aironet Wireless Communications in 1999 and then made a number of acquisitions of wireless companies in subsequent years.

Cisco expects the Airespace deal to close by the end of April. Once complete, Airespace, with 175 employees, will become part of Cisco's data center, switching, and wireless technology group.

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