With its announcement of new wireless LAN hardware this week, Aruba Networks becomes the last of the major enterprise wireless-LAN vendors to announce gear for systems based on the emerging 802.11n spec for Wi-Fi networks.
The advent of 802.11n is seen as a major transition point for enterprise wireless networking -- particularly for companies that have not yet deployed Wi-Fi networks in their offices and campuses.
A new version of the Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n will offer five times the throughput of existing Wi-Fi networks plus increased stability and reliability. Full ratification of the new spec by the IEEE has been delayed several times, and final approval is now expected some time late next year or even 2009.
In Aruba's world, that will essentially mean a long-awaited shift to an all-world wireless world -- a transformation the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based vendor sees as a stepping-stone on its path to fully competing with Cisco, 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," said Michael Tennefoss, Aruba's head of strategic marketing "they're saying, 'Now I can go and cut the cord.'"
Executives at Cisco, which released its own "Draft 2-compatible" 802.11n gear in early September, are skeptical.
"I do not know an enterprise customer out there that is intending to move to an all-wireless network," said Ben Gibson, director of mobility solutions at Cisco. "I do know plenty that want to be both."
Both Cisco and Aruba, the leaders in the wireless LAN market, have invested millions in new 802.11n gear, anticipating that despite the relatively slow pace of final standardization, within a few years virtually all enterprises will to some extent be running wireless networks based on the new technology. According to Daniel Corsetti, an analyst at research group IDC, sales of enterprise wireless LAN infrastructure (controllers and access points) will grow to $7.6 billion in 2011from under $3 billion in 2006. almost all that growth will be in 802.11n gear. It's a big market, and Aruba wants to steal market share from Cisco in it.
So far universities have been the first to adopt full-out new 802.11n systems. Aruba is touting a deployment by Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, as a leading indicator.
"802.11n will be a true inflection point," said Dan McCarriar, assistant director of network services at Carnegie Mellon, in a statement, "offering us the ability to deliver on a long-time vision: a campus wireless network that is not just an adjunct to the wired network, but a potential replacement for most applications."
Aruba's network gear is "software upgradeable," meaning that any tweaks necessitated by the final version of the standard can be delivered over the air. To hear Aruba officials tell it, upgrading to 802.11n on Cisco gear just about requires an axe and a blowtorch: "With Cisco's modular hardware design you have to pull out a ladder, open the AP, shove in a new radio module, button it up and commission it," said Tennefoss. "We don't think that's practical."
Poppycock, said Cisco's Gibson: The final 802.11n standard may still require more than simple software modifications. "While the prospect is likely, it is currently impossible, and quite irresponsible, to claim that any 802.11n draft 2 product will be guaranteed software upgradeable to final standard." If a hardware upgrade is required, you'll have to rip Aruba's gear out of the ceiling altogether, he added.
Then there's the debate around power-over-Ethernet -- Aruba said its new access points will work just fine over conventional, existing electrical systems, while Cisco uses a "discovery protocol" between some of its switch models and access points (APs) to deliver extra power where needed for the higher throughput with .11n.
IT managers can expect plenty of he-said, she-said like this in the coming months, meaning that the best plan, unless you've got an urgent need to install an all-new wireless LAN next week, may be to stay the course and wait for the hype clouds to part. Right now what's going on is a lot of pre-positioning.
"Experienced network professionals are content waiting for second-generation 802.11n offerings," wrote Dave Molta of Network Computing last month in his comprehensive review of the new systems. This week's news out of Aruba probably doesn't change that.