LAN/WLAN integration growing, but snags persist

Networking industry says wireless and wired integration is still a ways off

Ethernet switch vendors who offer combined or unified LAN and WLAN gear say the ultimate goal is to get wired and wireless network technologies to appear as a single network access layer. However, switch vendors and industry experts say this is still a ways off -- both in terms of the technology, and the demand for unified gear from users.

"We're still in the early days of unified LAN/WLAN networks," says Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group, a Massachusetts-based WLAN consultancy. "I wouldn't say any offering is really complete at this point. It's an enormous technological and marketing challenge to get everything integrated together" -- where switches, access points, management software are all unified with a single security architecture.

"It's going to take a while until we get to that point."

Many analysts and industry observers said that corporate WLAN technology -- particularly, WLAN switch technology -- would be absorbed by LAN switch vendors in the long run. The thinking goes that business IT administrators would prefer wireless and management of the WLAN integrated into a wired infrastructure.

Vendors such as Cisco, 3Com and others have offered WLAN for more than 10 years. But this gear was based on the thick access-point model, where an access point has its own IP address and is managed as a separate network element. In 2002 and 2003, WLAN switching emerged, with a new approach to wireless. Access points are managed as network-attached radios, tied to a centralized WLAN controller or switch, which provides central access settings, configuration and security. This is what is called an overlay network: The WLAN is essentially a second network, laid on top of the base Ethernet LAN. Security, physical-layer access and management are two separate realms.

Unification on the surface

Most LAN-switch vendors with WLAN offerings sell technology bought from, or acquired by, WLAN switch start-ups. They offer WLAN- and LAN-management tools that tie together policies, device management and other tasks for wired and wireless clients, even if these users are connecting via pieces of equipment that were not developed by the same company, originally.

"Cisco has made significant progress in that area, and they're probably the leader at this point," in terms of offering unified LAN/WLAN gear with a meshed network-management layer, Farpoint's Mathias says.

Ben Gibson, director of mobility solutions marketing at Cisco, thinks WLAN technology eventually will be absorbed mostly into Ethernet-switch infrastructure. But it will take time.

"The longer-range view is that this is the direction we'll go," he says. "But there is a need for organizations to deploy WLAN controllers, either in an integrated or stand-alone fashion, depending on what they need to do."

Cisco offers WLAN controllers that can be integrated into its switches, such as stackables and Catalyst 6500 chassis. It also has WLAN controllers that run as stand-alone appliances, for the true WLAN-overlay model; Cisco acquired this technology from its acquisition of Airespace in 2004.

What Cisco has focused more on in the meantime, is bridging the network-management tools used to control security and configurations of Ethernet and 802.11-based gear. This is what users want the most.

"Not too many it organizations that can afford to double the size of their network-management staffs," he says.

Other purveyors of WLAN/LAN gear say the level of integration between the two depends on the size of the company and what problems users of the gear want to solve the most.

"When people talk about unified networks, they talk about multiple things, and that adds to the confusion," says Suresh Gopalakrishnan, vice president of Extreme's emerging products group. On one level, there is the overall appearance of a unified network. This involved setting policies for security or access that are the same for wired and wireless policies. It also involved management. Extreme, for example, offers a network-management tool that allows users to configure access settings and physical device settings for Ethernet ports and WLAN access points.

Another level of unification is having WLAN access-point controller and management features built into LAN switches. This is more popular in smaller networks, with fewer LAN switches at the edge. Or in networks that are widely standardized on one vendor's specific product.

"If the LAN edge is homogenous," Gopalakrishnan says, "then having wireless technology in the edge switch is great. You have complete control of both types of networks."

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