The real growth in enterprise wireless LANs will come in the next few years from the emerging 802.11n standard.

Richard Martin, Contributor

November 29, 2007

3 Min Read

As the enterprise wireless LAN market continued to grow at a healthy clip in the third quarter, Cisco Systems solidified its lead as the dominant provider of Wi-Fi infrastructure to businesses.

Cisco increased its market share in wireless LAN infrastructure to 63.4% from just under 62% in the previous quarter, while No. 2 vendor Aruba Networks saw its market share fall slightly to 8% for the three months ended Sept. 30, according to figures from Dell'Oro Research. In third place is Motorola's Symbol division, a longtime provider to "non-carpeted" enterprises such as warehouses, which has seen its market share flatten and decline slowly over the last couple of years.

The worldwide wireless LAN market overall grew 8% to $390.9 million for the quarter, as Cisco upped its revenues to $248 million, a jump of more than 10%. "Cisco drove most of the growth" for the quarter, said Dell'Oro wireless analyst Elmer Choy.

That still leaves room for growth for the smaller players. Meru Networks, which is playing catch-up with Aruba, grew its revenues to $11.8 million, a nearly 16% bump, making it the fastest-growing of the major providers. Earlier this week Meru released details of what it calls the world's largest wireless network deployment in terms of access points, built for the School District of Philadelphia. As of this fall, said Meru senior VP of marketing Kamal Anand, the Philadelphia schools network comprises some 14,000 access points distributed over around 90 schools.

The district picked Meru equipment, Anand said, because of its ease of deployment and use -- "I'm proud to say that all 14,000 access points are being managed by one IT person" -- and because of its ability to handle video transmission over the 802.11a, .11b, and .11g standards.

The real growth in enterprise wireless LANs, however, will come in the next few years from the emerging 802.11n standard. Considered a major upgrade for enterprise wireless networking, the 802.11n spec 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. Vendors, however, are already selling gear based on the draft version of the standard that has been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Earlier this month Aruba became the last major wireless LAN vendor to introduce hardware for systems based on 802.11n. Cisco released its own "Draft 2-compatible" 802.11n gear in September.

The move to 802.11n has sparked a technological war of words between Wi-Fi equipment vendors, mostly centering on the most appropriate architecture for the increased bandwidth possible with the new standard. Access points in 802.11n networks could run at speeds of up to 150 Mbit/s, as opposed to the 25 Mbit/s peaks seen on legacy technology.

According to rivals of Cisco and Aruba, the mostly centralized architecture used by the two leading vendors will limit the actual throughput of 802.11n systems built with their equipment.

"All the traffic has to pass through the core and be processed packet-by-packet through the controller," said Tom Racca, VP of marketing for Colubris Networks, which does not report its results to research firms like Dell'Oro. "That creates a bottleneck, and the overall performance is determined by the maximum performance of the controller."

Aruba head of strategic marketing Michael Tennefoss claims that Aruba equipment can actually support either distributed or centralized architectures: "For us the architecture discussion is moot."

What's clear is that, while Cisco's position as the dominant wireless LAN provider is unthreatened, there's plenty of headroom for growth for smaller players as well. Aruba said last week its total sales almost doubled for its first quarter, which ended on Oct. 31, and the company's loss dwindled to under $640,000 compared with a $4.5 million first-quarter shortfall a year ago.

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