Getting a jump on the next big leap forward in enterprise wireless networking, Cisco Systems said Tuesday it will ship initial wireless LAN gear based on the draft 802.11n standard in October.
Cisco is the first of the major enterprise wireless LAN vendors to ship "enterprise-class" access points and switches for the new standard, which promises higher bandwidth and great reliability than previous versions of Wi-Fi such as 802.11a, b, and g.
In development since 2004, the .11n standard has met with even more of the usual delays and debate that typically surround new networking standards from the IEEE. Last year, the IEEE 802.11 Working Group voted to reject the first draft of the standard. Draft 2 was approved earlier this year, and several dozen products -- most of them targeted at residential networks, not businesses -- are now on the market. They have not been universally applauded.
"This process has been characterized by some uncoordinated draft-n efforts by consumer products manufacturers, in an attempt to raise the average selling prices of their products," observes Ken Dulaney, vice president and principal analyst for mobile and wireless at Gartner. "The results have been poor."
The major enterprise wireless-LAN vendors, adds Dulaney, "are not stupid enough to do that."
Now Cisco is changing that by releasing what it calls "the next-generation Unified Wireless Network," comprising the Aironet 1250 Series access point, a new WLAN Controller system based on its Catalyst 6500 line of switches, and new integrated software services via version 4.2 of its Unified Wireless Network suite.
The decision to move forward with pre-final-standard 802.11n gear, said Cisco director of mobility solutions Ben Gibson, was driven by the increasing availability of silicon tuned for .11n networks as well as the beginnings of proliferation of .11n clients such as laptops capable of connecting on the new systems.
Last year, the Wi-Fi Alliance reversed its stated policy of not doing interoperability testing of products based on new 802.11 technology until the final, formal ratification of the standard from the IEEE. The group is now certifying "draft-ready" versions of 802.11n equipment, and Cisco said its Aironet 1250 node is the only commercially available product to have participated in the Alliance's 802.11n draft 2.0 testbed.
Unlikely to be finally approved before the fall of 2008, the new standard will pave the way for wireless LANs running at speeds of 100 Mbit/s and up.
Some analysts see the advent of 802.11n as an opportunity for the challengers in the enterprise wireless LAN market, which has traditionally been dominated by Cisco with a market share of around 65% to eat away at the San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant's lead. Aruba Networks, which has seen its market share almost double since going public last March, is particularly bullish on the .11n transition.
"If you look at the market landscape, there will be a significant amount of change in the next nine to 12 months," said Keerti Melkote. The 802.11n transition, he adds, "presents an opportunity to offer a real alternative to the status quo."
Gibson counters by pointing out that increased power requirements for the new systems will put a premium on integrated wireless and wired networks in order to provide sufficient electricity to the more powerful .11n nodes. Cisco's Catalyst switches will be able to fully power the dual-radio Aironet 1250 access points from a single Ethernet port.
"Our system provides IT managers with an easy solution to both backhaul and power challenges in the new environment," said Gibson. "In our view, moving to .11n is both a wired and a wireless decision."
That's true as long as businesses remain committed to running both wired and wireless networks. In a wireless-only world upstarts like Aruba become a more plausible alternative to Cisco's comprehensive systems.
"This technology forces us to think about one thing," said Delaney. "Today most companies put in wired by default and wireless by exception. At what point do we start putting in wireless by default?"