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Sunday, May 07, 2006 

Cisco to update Wi-Fi setup

Cisco Systems is planning to announce a new wireless module for its Catalyst 6500 Ethernet switch that will provide more centralized management and enhanced features for Cisco's Wi-Fi product.

According to one analyst, the capabilities provided by the module will put Cisco's gear on par with products from start-ups such as Airespace and Aruba Wireless Networks.

"Cisco is catching up to offering capabilities that other companies introduced a year ago," said Dave Passmore, research director for the Burton Group. "So in that respect, it's a big deal for them."

Cisco's wireless product is made up of three parts. Its Aironet wireless access points transmit the Wi-Fi radio frequency signals. The Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) provides centralized management of the access nodes. And the Catalyst 6500 Ethernet switch provides the link from the wireless network to the customer's data network.

These products are all a part of Cisco's SWAN (Structured Wireless Aware Network) architecture, introduced last year. The concept is designed to enable current Cisco customers to integrate wireless services into networks already running Cisco networking gear.

The new module will fit into the Catalyst 6500 Ethernet switch and is designed to provide more intelligence so that more functionality can be centrally controlled by the WLSE. The new module will offer several new features, including dynamic selection of radio frequency and automatic power adjustment on the Aironet access points.

The addition of these features is important as more companies rely on Wi-Fi for network access. One problem with many Wi-Fi installations is that performance suffers when a user gets close to the edge of a coverage area. The performance degradation not only affects the user who is wandering out of range, it also affects every other user attached to that access point. To mitigate this problem, companies have begun installing more access points in denser configurations.

But this has caused another problem for system administrators. Because there are more access points set up closer together, it's more likely that radio-frequency signals from one access point could overlap with a neighboring node. Administrators also must make sure the power level on the access points is adjusted properly. Before Cisco added these new capabilities to the Catalyst 6500, administrators had to manually configure every access point.

"It's a very labor intensive process," said Passmore. "It's more an art than a science in trying to get all channels assigned properly and making sure the power was adjusted right."

Cisco is one of the first large companies to incorporate these features into its wireless products. Others such as Extreme Networks and Foundry Networks are supposedly working on similar functionality.

But start-ups including Airespace and Aruba have been offering these features for about a year. While Cisco and the rest of the established Ethernet switch market have been scrambling to catch up, these start-ups have moved forward, adding even more features like client location tracking. This feature becomes important as mobile voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones are added to the network. It allows for services such as E911 to work.

Cisco doesn't offer this feature yet, according to Passmore.

But even with a richer and more mature feature set, Wi-Fi start-ups will likely struggle to win deals among Cisco's customers, many of whom are willing to wait for Cisco to add new features to its portfolio.

Along with the new module, Cisco's Wednesday announcement will provide more information about its strategy for wireless networking. The company declined to comment on the specifics of the announcement for this story.

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