Cisco Looks to Automate WLANs

Cisco Systems — currently the leader in enterprise sales for wireless LAN infrastructure products according to Synergy Research Group — wants to expand its control of the WLAN by putting some of the automation in its wired components.

Shripati Acharya, product line manager in the company’s Wireless Networking Business Unit calls the newly announced Structured Wireless-Aware Network, “a framework for a single, secure wireless LAN environment. Our intention is to extend abilities we have.”

While describing the components that will make up the framework, Acharya started from the bottom, or, at least, the end. He says wireless client nodes equipped with NICs using Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) will be key to “managing the air” in the WLAN just as an administrator would want to manage the traffic on the Ethernet cables of a wired network. While such management is usually done by an access point (or, for some third-party security systems, using extra wireless sniffers) he says putting the client to work for monitoring helps increase security exponentially.

“If a client in my cubicle discovers a rogue access point, it can report it back to the network,” says Acharya. “Same thing is true when you do interference detection, or any measurement for optimizing the channels and performance.”

Such abilities will not be available until CCX 2.0 is out; it will be part of firmware upgrades from the third party vendors that have built CCX into their WLAN client products.

Next, comes the network itself. Cisco will be offering enhancements to a number of its current products, such as switches (Cisco Catalyst 3750, 4500 and 6500 Series), routers (Cisco 2600XM and 3700 Series). and access points (Cisco Aironet 1100 and 1200 Series).

The CiscoWorks Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) 2.0 will run on a separate appliance and control up to 2,500 access points. It will push out upgrades and abilities such as Wi-Fi Protected Access and 802.1X authentication to the units. Eventually, the coming 2.5 version will also deliver dynamic radio frequency (RF) management and more security (even location aware rogue access point detection).

Acharya says the WLSE will also allow companies to survive downtime when a AAA server goes down, saying “You can continue to authenticate until the home link to the network comes back up.”

“The solutions we have is more comprehensive than any single wireless switch — it’s a fairly loosely used term,” say Acharya when asked how Cisco’s solution stacks up against WLAN switches announced by newcomers (Airespace, Trapeze, Legra, Vivato, etc.) and current competitors (Nortel and Extreme).

“Using existing elements is the way to get comprehensive,” says Acharya, adding that this announcement is “a response to customer needs,” not a response to the growing number of WLAN switch vendors.

Cisco’s IOS Software runs on its routers and switches, and has been integrated into its access points since last year. Because WLSE and the infrastructure upgrades are based in IOS, Acharya says it provides the flexibility Cisco needs to upgrade in stages. The 2.0 versions of WLSE ($8495) and CCX (free upgrade from client vendors) will be out in the third quarter of this year. The fourth quarter will see introduction of site survey tools to improve installation. Next year the Cisco routers and switches will become fully WLAN aware. Most of the upgrades will come at no cost.

802.11g upgrades for the 1100 and 1200 Series access points are also in the offing now that the 11g specification is ready for ratification by the IEEE.

Not to be left out of the wireless back-haul world, Cisco has also introduced the $4,999 Cisco Aironet 1400 Series Wireless Bridge, an outdoor, IOS software-based unit that does 54Mbps either point-to-multipoint up to 2 miles, or point-to-point up to 7.5 miles. Both can go farther with use of lower data rates and high gain antennas.

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