Cisco is odd man out as Microsoft begins major upgrade to its infrastructure
It's impressive when a fast-growing startup such as Aruba Wireless Networks Inc. adds another big-name customer to its roster. It's all the more so because Aruba stole its latest customer--none other than Microsoft--away from networking leader Cisco Systems.
The win is notable for several reasons. Aruba is a fraction of the size of Cisco, and Cisco was the incumbent wireless infrastructure provider for Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus. Microsoft confirms it will replace its Cisco-based wireless LAN infrastructure with equipment from Aruba, which will be deployed in 277 buildings and cover more than 17 million square feet.
Switching system runs Aruba's success, CEO LeBeau says.
And Aruba is making a name for itself. Other customers include eBay, Yahoo, and Google. All three are using Aruba's wireless LAN equipment, which consists of controllers, software, and "thin" access points, which leave most of the workload to the controller. The equipment's strong security features help keep outsiders from hacking into corporate networks, says Craig Mathias, an analyst with wireless advisory firm Farpoint Group.
At the heart of Aruba's success is a switching system that centralizes 802.11i security functions, including wireless encryption, authentication, and user-access controls. Some other vendors support those functions at network access points, but that's not ideal because access points serve as gateways to a company network, posing a potential security threat. Aruba also allows encrypted wireless traffic to be carried over a wire network, further reducing security threats, says Don LeBeau, the company's president and CEO.
Aruba's system also supports thin access points--as many as 512 of them. That provides a lot of room for scalability, says Joel Conover, an analyst with research firm Current Analysis. Cisco supports up to 36 thin access points per switch, which means a company going the Cisco route would have to buy more switches.
And scalability is what Microsoft needs. Its internal wireless LAN infrastructure is huge, serving more than 25,000 people in 60-plus countries. Microsoft will deploy 5,000 of Aruba's "thin" wireless access points, which will provide connectivity to 100,000 Wi-Fi-enabled devices. The deployment starts immediately and is expected to take 18 to 24 months. "This is one of the largest, if not the largest, wireless LAN deployments in the world," Farpoint's Mathias says.
Aruba's equipment will let Microsoft control and encrypt all those wireless devices centrally, rather than attempt to manage them at the access points. "Aruba's system has lots of capabilities, and Microsoft will be able to do things now that it couldn't do before," says Mathias. For example, configuring virtual LANs should be much easier.
But it's too early to declare a top dog among vendors that sell wireless infrastructure for commercial environments. Other suppliers include Extreme Networks, Nortel Networks, 3Com, and Trapeze Networks. "Most of these systems aren't sophisticated enough yet to handle multiple campuses," analyst Conover says. Most wireless LAN systems--and that includes both Aruba's and Cisco's--are designed to handle one large campus, and deploying them in different cities requires individual management of each site, he adds. Additionally, having everything managed at the switch strains the network and can cause bottlenecks.
Still, LeBeau believes a combination of centralized control and tight security are what many businesses will be turning to, following Microsoft's example. Security concerns have certainly been a major reason some businesses haven't moved faster with large-scale Wi-Fi deployments. Yet, with an increasingly mobile workforce and lightweight computing devices, a growing number can't wait. And Aruba's signal is coming through.
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