Cisco brings wireless into flagship switch

As issues such as security and roaming start to be solved, wireless LANs are moving toward greater integration with enterprise networks. Wireless is now set to work its way into Cisco Systems Inc.'s LAN flagship, the Catalyst 6500 switch.

Cisco on Wednesday unveiled a wireless LAN hardware module for the 6500 platform, along with an updated wireless management application and an access point (AP) suited to outdoor as well as indoor use. The introductions are the latest steps in the rollout of the Cisco Structured Wireless-Aware Network (SWAN), the networking giant's wireless LAN vision that was kicked off about a year ago. Wi-Fi is now moving toward large-enterprise scale and mobile applications such as campus voice calling, according to the San Jose, California company.

The Wireless LAN Services Module (WLSM) for Cisco's Catalyst 6500 switch can support as many as 300 APs and 6,000 users, Cisco executives said during a webcast Wednesday. It is designed as the central element of wireless LANs for an entire enterprise, with wireless users able to connect securely through tunnels across a LAN or WAN. Also unveiled Wednesday was CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) Version 2.7, an update to a centralized management application that can find failed APs and adjust others to restore coverage. Among other enhancements, it also automates the process of adjusting AP power and channels to optimize coverage.

The new WLSE software impressed a network manager at Media General Inc., in Richmond, Virginia, with its rogue access point detection and network layout automation features. The large broadcast, print and online media company is still at the trial stage with wireless LANs, but network manager Daniel Foss thinks the technology may pay off by letting employees access network information and applications while away from their desks. For example, newspaper editors could access current page layouts while in meetings, he said. WLSE's new features could save legwork for the IT department, Foss said.

Cisco's latest enhancements, including fast handoffs between APs, could help large enterprises with wireless LANs move from portability in the office to true mobility, according to IDC analyst Abner Germanow. The company's prize customers already have campus deployments large enough to benefit from the new scalability, he added. What Cisco has done is in some cases bigger than what specialized vendors are doing and in other cases different, Germanow said.

Cisco Product Line Manager Douglas Gourlay dismissed third-party wireless switch products on the market now as "appliances" that aren't suited to scaling up beyond what would be simply "pilot deployments" at many large or medium-sized enterprises. The WLSM, based on ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) and integrated into Cisco's high-powered 6500, provides the headroom to keep adding access points and users toward true enterprise scale without degrading performance, he said.

A key benefit to the end user is the ability to roam among access points while keeping any active applications or VOIP calls live, because once the users are authenticated they keep their IP addresses and the policies that apply to them, Gourlay said. What's more, the system has the performance to carry out the handoff and reauthentication between access points in 50 milliseconds or less, avoiding even a hiccup in a voice call, he added.

However, there are conditions on Cisco's magic, executives acknowledged in response to questions on the webcast. That low latency can be delivered across campuses but did not work in a test over an Australia-spanning WAN, they said. Roaming controlled by a WLSM located that far away took longer than 50 milliseconds. In addition, the parts are meant to work as a system: Users are authenticated at the access point, which means interlopers get no farther than that on the network, Cisco said, but customers have to use Cisco access points. Likewise, basic roaming is possible with standard Wi-Fi clients, but for the under-50 millisecond handoff users need clients with CCX (Cisco Compatible Extensions) technology. Some vendors other than Cisco already include those capabilities.

The connection to Cisco is a selling point to Media General's Foss.

Wi-Fi security is finally coming of age, but ease of management is also a critical requirement in any wireless LAN system, Foss said. He has been impressed with a handful of 6500s that Media General has deployed and he might consider leveraging the platform for central control of a wireless infrastructure. Though some startups have broken new ground in wireless technology, Foss said he prefers to stick with more established vendors such as Cisco. For one thing, a startup might be acquired by a larger vendor that has a weak overall product lineup or management system.

"If they integrate a good solution into a bad system, it's still a bad system," Foss said.

The Cisco Aironet 1300 Series Outdoor AP/Bridge, also introduced Wednesday, is ruggedly designed and can be used for outdoor hotspots or for building-to-building connections and temporary networks, Cisco said. The product is set to ship this month for US$1,299.

The WSLM can be ordered now. It is expected to ship in June with a U.S. list price of $18,000 for the module and a license for support of as many as 150 APs. To support more APs, customers need to either have an existing Enterprise Plus IP license for Cisco IOS (Internetwork Operating System) or buy an additional IOS license for a U.S. list price of $8,000. WLSE 2.7 is available now at no additional cost for customers with SmartNet Maintenance.

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