Dropping Switches for Licensing

If you can’t beat ’em, sell to ’em.

Despite saying that their business was doing quite well of late, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AirFlow Networks is getting out of the wireless LAN switch business — a market crowded with both networking icons and a numerous startups. Instead the company will be switching to licensing of its technology to others.

The technology in question is the company’s patent-pending wireless LAN Switch-on-a-Chip (Wi-SoC), a silicon solution with “specific applications for the voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) market” according to Brian Jenkins, vice president of marketing and business development at AirFlow. Wi-SoC can “eliminate” AP-to-AP hand-off for devices doing voice.

Jenkins stresses that this is not the company getting into the 802.11 chip space, nor would they sell to such chip makers — AirFlow would partner with them. For example, a wireless switch vendor would use the AirFlow Wi-SoC for switching applications in the central management hardware, and 802.11 chips from another company to provide wireless at the AP. One partner they already tout is Engim, which makes chips capable of using multiple channels from a single AP.

To further push the Wi-SoC compatibility, AirFlow says it will offer full support for Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points (CAPWAP). This is a Working Group in the IETF that will define the WLAN architecture and topology to be used by WLAN switches in the future. Eventually, this will also lead to creation of a protocol for controlling “thin APs,” replacing the expired LWAPP protocol.

While the protocol side of CAPWAP isn’t supposed to start for a while, some companies are already pushing their way of doing things as a standard: switch vendor Chantry Networks and partner Propagate Networks proposed a CAPWAP Tunneling Protocol to the IETF earlier this month.

Jenkins says all the vendors “have their own tunneling architecture. Moving forward, we’ll be involved in the CAPWAP standard, so that Wi-SoC will talk to CAPWAP access points, whatever emerges.”

If the business of WLAN switches was going well, why get out now? Jenkins says it would have required more investment cash to build up the sales and engineering teams to stay competitive, feature to feature, with the many startups like Chantry, Aruba, Trapeze, et al. But the interest in VoWLAN is what really got to the company: “By licensing, we get to take advantage of what the vendors have out there. If we did it on the systems side, we’d have to spend all the time replicating what others are doing.”

Expect AirFlow to stay on the down-low. It has no specific partners lined up yet to buy the Wi-SoC silicon and expects that even when they do most of them will clam up about getting such features from a third party.

“Most don’t want to announce their embedded partners,” says Jenkins. “We didn’t do it when we did systems, either.”

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