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2009: The Year of the Wireless Branch Office?

Interop has always been a popular place to unveil new products and major upgrades. 2008 was the year for enterprise-class 802.11n, with many vendors announcing Draft N-certified gear and related radio/architecture improvements. By all accounts, those products are now enjoying considerable success—InStat expects enterprise AP shipments to jump from just 148,000 in 2008 to 726,000 in 2009.

At this year’s Interop, times have changed. Not only are budgets stretched paper-thin, but early 802.11n business adoption has uncovered IT pain points and under-served market segments. For example, 2009 seems to be the year of the wireless branch office.

Mid-market madness

As noted in our Best of Show coverage, Aruba won the Wireless/Mobile category by combining “branch in a box” APs with small controllers, priced for SMBs. Finalist Cisco took a whack at their price tag with a “right-sized” appliance that delivers advanced mobility services to SMBs.  However, as we walked the 2009 expo, we found many other vendors aiming at the mid-market.

Meraki unveiled two new 11n APs: the single radio MR11 ($599) and the dual radio MR14 ($799). Both are centrally provisioned, maintained, and monitored by Meraki’s Enterprise Cloud Controller, a hosted WLAN management service starting at $150/AP/year. But don’t let the name fool you. “We’re not aiming at F1000 enterprises,” said CEO Sanjit Biswas. “We’re aiming at medium and small offices, where we can build upon our past successes [in hospitality and retail.]”

Not to be left out, Motorola announced its solution to let customers “quickly deploy resilient, secure and voice-enabled branch office wireless LANs.” But this newly-announced solution is based on an existing product: the AP-7131 ($1299), a tri-radio 802.11a/b/g/n adaptive AP with integrated stateful firewall and 3G/4G backhaul, widely deployed in retail stores. Smaller businesses can deploy the AP-7131 solo, without a controller. Larger businesses will use Motorola’s RFS6000/7000 switches and enterprise management suite to provision and control AP-7131’s, applying the same security and QoS policies at BO and HQ.

Broadcom announced products to make business-grade Wi-Fi even more affordable next year. The new BCM56520 unified wireless/wireline switch implements CAPWAP processing in silicon to enable lower-cost edge controller development. The BCM4748 AP-on-a-chip combines 802.11n and GbE MACs, a baseband processor, a dual-band 802.11n radio, CPU, and power amplifiers on a single die. According to Senior Product Line Manager Mike Powell, this new AP SoC will reduce CAPX and OPX, cutting materials cost 30 to 40 percent while leaving a 20 to 30 percent margin when powering two radios with standard PoE.

WLAN pain relief

One key ingredient in branch office solutions is simplicity, realized through features like centralized AP provisioning. However, this is not the only pain point being experienced by businesses that deploy 802.11n. As WLANs grow larger, ad hoc admin practices simply cannot scale. Several other new products announced this week in Las Vegas aim to reduce TCO using better management and trouble-shooting tools.

AirMagnet announced new versions of its Survey PRO ($3695) and VoFi Analyzer PRO ($4995) that marry these products to simplify voice network design and trouble-shooting. According to Director of Product Management Wade Williamson, hospital trials have shown this combo can demystify challenging voice issues in just a day or two—for example, pin-pointing areas with good signal where calls drop or handsets make bad roaming decisions. Using these tools, admins can plot MOS scores, call handoffs, and adherence to vendor design specs on floor plans, visualizing problems that can otherwise be very tough to debug.

MetaGeek demonstrated its new Wi-Spy 2.4i , a $99 USB spectrum analyzer that pairs with the company’s 3D Channelyzer to visualize, trouble-shoot, and optimize 2.4 GHz WLANs. This bargain-priced analyzer, available in June, will complement MetaGeek’s dual-band Wi-Spy DBx ($599), giving even small companies an affordable way to find and resolve RF interference problems that plague the 2.4 GHz “junk band.”

Over in the Aerohive booth, attendees were treated to a pair of live demonstrations: Dynamic Airtime Scheduling (announced in February) and Private PSK (making its debut at Interop). Private PSK takes a novel whack at balancing security and simplicity for clients that can’t or won’t support 802.1X. Standard PSKs deliver group-level authentication, where all clients prove they know that same secret and must then be treated the same—for example, applying a single VLAN tag and set of firewall rules. With PPSK, a HiveManager can generate a unique, random, strong, time-bounded PSK per user. This lets you avoid the complexity of 802.1X while encrypting data and controlling precisely who can use your WLAN and what each person can do. Furthermore, Aerohive married PPSKs to its Guest Manager, so that non-technical staff can easily allocate generated PPSKs to individuals—and later rescind them if necessary.

Finally, Xirrus was extremely busy at Interop Las Vegas 2009, hosting live boxing matches in their booth and using Wi-Fi arrays to deliver wireless connectivity for InteropNet. In fact, Xirrus has created a bit of a niche by providing “instant WLANs” for events like Interop, Cannes, and Tour de France. At Interop, Xirrus announced a Rapid Deployment Wi-Fi Kit ($3,999-$5,999) for disaster recovery and other temporary installations. This pre-packaged kit combines one Xirrus Wi-Fi Array (a single enclosure containing four to eight APs and directional antennas, a controller, switch, firewall, and RADIUS/DHCP servers), with a mounting tripod, data/power cables, and a ruggedized case for easy transport.

What a difference a year makes

Interop 2009 was rather different than Interop 2008 in many respects. From fewer, smaller booths (thanks to the economy) to declining attendance (thanks to the pre-show swine flu outbreak), the event had a cozier look and feel. On the wireless front, some vendors ramped down to table-tops in partner booths, while others skipped Interop 2009 altogether (e.g., Meru, Ruckus).

However, those who attended seemed to treat Wi-Fi as a given—with broader 802.11n adoption underway, what can be done to make those deployments go further and overcome speed bumps? These product announcements illustrate that Wi-Fi has matured into a technology that appeals to many, but could still use a little process improvement.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. A 27-year networking industry veteran, Lisa has been involved in the design, implementation, and testing of wireless products and services since 1996. For more Interop coverage, read Wi-Fi News from Interop 2009.