Wi-Fi News from Interop 2009

Wireless mobility has gone mainstream. On the shrinking show-floor of Interop Las Vegas 2009, bigger, badder hardware has taken a back seat to innovative software and deployment strategies: virtualization, cloud computing, and mobile applications. Enterprise networking is becoming less about plumbing and more about business process enablement—on-site and off.

Wireless plays a starring role in this transformation, as enterprises and SMBs invest more extensively and exclusively in Wi-Fi for network access. But just cutting the cord is no longer big news at Interop. The wireless vendors making the biggest splash this week are those focused on mobilizing workforces on a broader scale, at lower cost.

Consider Interop’s annual battle for Best of Show. Across the board, judges searched for products that enabled new business models, were easier to manage, and could do a lot more for less. For wireless mobile, it came down to three finalists: Cisco, Aruba, and Rhomobile.

Rhomobile: Overcoming cross-platform barriers

If you haven’t heard of Rhomobile, you’re not alone. While this young company didn’t win the mobile wireless category, it did take home Best Startup by tackling an onerous mobility challenge in a simple, but elegant way.

From a small table-top at the rear of the show floor, Director of Business Development Cam Kramlich demonstrated RhoHub by creating very basic cross-platform mobile applications in real-time. RhoHub brings cloud computing to mobile application development, using the company’s Rhodes Mobile Application Framework as a platform.

RhoHub is a hosted development environment for creating HTML or Ruby applications that are compiled to run natively on BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, and Symbian devices. The real magic is generating those OS-specific executables from a single source using the Rhodes framework, but Rhomobile didn’t stop there.

With RhoHub, they made that framework easy to trial and deploy. Developers code using a Web portal to edit auto-generated XML stubs. Mobile users then visit a URL on a RhoSync server to download new apps over the air. According to Kramlich, this self-provisioning is possible for all five supported platforms, but prevented from downloading to iPhones to comply with Apple SDK licensing.

Cisco: Moving up the mobility food chain

Industry goliath Cisco always wins a few Interop awards; 2009 proved no exception. But Cisco’s first-place ribbons were garnered in other categories—for example, porting Webex to run on an enterprise router. (Huh?)

A runner-up for wireless/mobile Best of Show was Cisco’s new 3310 Mobility Services Engine ($7000), a scaled-down version of the 3350 announced last year. Both appliances use SDKs to support Cisco and third-party mobility services (e.g., WIPS, roaming, location-awareness). But at one-third the cost, the 3310 is sized for SMBs—for example, tracking 3K rather than 18K client locations.

In fact, Cisco made a flurry of “Collaboration in Motion” announcements at Interop, ranging from client device and network expansion to application integration and technology partnerships. For example, Cisco tiered its popular Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) program, adding Management, Collaboration, and Context Aware programs that build upon today’s CCX Foundation, reflecting advances that might be applicable to some kinds of devices, but not others.

By testing CCX extensions before devices hit the market (or features become standard), Cisco gets a jump on the competition while improving customer experience. Cisco clearly hopes the same will be true for mobile applications—it also announced the Cisco Developer Network, a formalization of its Cisco Unified Wireless Network partner program. Partners like NetScout and ArcSight were present at Interop, demonstrating location-aware MSE/application integration.

“Collaboration is increasingly important to our customer base,” said Chris Kozup, Manager for Wireless/Mobility Marketing. “The challenges of distribution and time must be bridged, and wireless is key to doing that. But it’s not just cellular; it’s not just Wi-Fi. It’s how we can enable richer application experiences across those connected environments.”

Aruba: Finding a happy middle

Finally, the Mobile/Wireless Best of Show winner is… Aruba’s Virtual Branch Network (VBN). According to Aruba’s Director of Strategic Marketing Mike Tennefoss, Wi-Fi gear may have matured for the enterprise, but outfitting smaller offices for wireless remains a challenge.

“We’ve learned a lot from our early RAP [remote access point] deployments, in locations ranging from executive homes to Verizon retail stores across the country,” said Tennefoss. “IT wants minimal involvement in bringing up a remote site—but they want an entire branch office network solution that can be activated with the press of a single button. And to scale to more than 1000 sites, we needed to get our costs down under $100 apiece.”

Residential APs fit that budget, but don’t allow for central control or business-grade security. Conversely, drop-shipping enterprise controllers to small branch offices is rarely feasible from a CAPX or OPX perspective. “Our VBN architecture takes a page from virtualization by using a powerful controller at the data center to deliver intelligent services at remote sites,” said Tennefoss.

With Aruba’s VBN, organizations can light up Wi-Fi anywhere by plugging a low-cost, turn-key “branch in a box” RAP into a broadband Ethernet drop or 3G wireless Internet adapter. The solution starts with the RAP-2WG ($99), a remotely activated and managed 802.11b/g dual-Ethernet device. For those who need and can afford more horsepower, Aruba offers the RAP-5 and 5WN ($395), a 3×3 MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n device that pairs with Ethernet or 3G uplinks.

This hardware is not by itself particularly remarkable—Aruba’s secret sauce is what runs inside. Specifically, each RAP is a distributed policy enforcement device. Remote users get all of the functionality, all of the security (SSIDs, URL filters, firewall rules), and all of the business applications they otherwise experience when working back at HQ. Policies are pushed to each RAP over secure tunnels by a central controller—this can be an enterprise-class 3000 or 6000 series controller back at HQ, or one of Aruba’s new 600 series medium branch office controllers (priced from $1495, available June 2009).

“With this solution, customers can scale their investment, connecting up to 8000 RAPs, using one click to install them,” said Tennefoss. “This not only reduces TCO, but makes it possible to manage and trouble-shoot all of those remote devices through a single console [for customers using Aruba’s AirWave management system.]”

As we shall see, Aruba isn’t the only exhibitor at Interop Las Vegas 2009 to target this largely ignored Wi-Fi market middle ground. Stay tuned for part 2 of our Interop coverage later this week…

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.

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