WLAN Switches: “We’re Validated”

It is now the week after the announcement that networking giant Cisco Systems would be acquiring the most successful of the so-called WLAN switch vendors, Airespace. Now the other vendors in the space are announcing new features—and talking about how happy the news has made them.

The acquisition “is a great thing for the market we’re in,” says Bruce Van Nice, the vice president of marketing for Trapeze Networks of Pleasanton, Calif. “It validates that wireless LAN switching is a key component of wireless LANs overall, that the architecture is where things are headed.”

Aruba Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif., isn’t surprised. There were early rumors that Cisco wanted to buy Aruba, which company communications director David Callisch confirms. At one point months ago, he says his company gave Cisco an Aruba WLAN switch to test out—but they took a pass on working with the startup. Cisco began new negotiations around Thanksgiving of last year.

“Our business is growing fast—without a big OEM channel like Airespace—which has kept our growth slower,” says Callisch. Based on that steady growth, CEO and president Don LaBeau apparently told Cisco its offer wasn’t going to be enough. Cisco decided to check out the competition, and the rest is history—they are purchasing Airespace for $450 million in stock.

“[Airespace] could have done better going public,” says Callisch.

He adds that “To their credit, Cisco isn’t shy about knowing where they’re weak and doing something about it.”

Cisco itself downplays any talk of it validating the WLAN switch market by buying Airespace. Senior manager of Wireless and Mobility at Cisco Ann Sun says, “there’s a misconception that we were against centralized management.” She claims the opportunity from Airespace is for smaller scale deployments—those looking to do a trial in one building with just Wi-Fi. Overall, though, she says the Cisco offerings are what’s right for large deployments that integrate both wired and wireless.

The buyout could leave some of Airespace’s partners like Nortel Networks, a major Cisco competitor, without a strategy. Airespace was unable to say much more than that there are “ongoing discussions with each” partner to see where things will go. But companies like Aruba and Trapeze hope to jump into the spot that Airespace will likely be vacating.

Trapeze, for one, thinks it is “particularly well positioned,” according to Van Nice. He attributes this to the way the company engineered the Trapeze software to make it more portable and able to move to new platforms, a feature he says they have demonstrated in their deal with 3Com.

Neither Trapeze or Aruba would completely rule out the possibility of being acquired in the future (though Aruba’s Callisch says his company would probably hold out for an offer with a “B word” in it). Each says that for now, they’re just focused now on executing their respective business plans. And that means new features to keep themselves competitive against the 800-pound gorilla called Cisco.

That said, Aruba yesterday announced new features for its recently announced grid architecture, which has the company leaning more and more on providing wireless security solutions that work as as an overlay to an existing wired network. Aruba will now extend the use of 802.1X authentication over the Internet using IPsec-based VPN tunnels to secure the connection between remote offices and headquarters. This would allow workers on the road to be sent out with pre-configured hardware that could make an instant, secure hotspot, which would connect back directly to the home office. That is assuming the road warrior can find a direct Internet connection… Aruba haven’t yet found a way to get past sign-in pages like those found in most hotel broadband connections.

The company also has a new “gridpoint,” the $595 Aruba 70, a wall-mounted, dual-radio unit with two Ethernet ports (for failover) and a USB port. It’s Trapeze’s “remote office-in-a-box” for use with the 802.1X VPNs mentioned above.

They’ve also added “life-limited” guest accounts that will be limited by location, traffic type, timeframe—whatever the admin wants to set up. Once time is up, the guest account is completely removed. The company also has a new site survey feature so it can provide a realtime display of what is happening in the radio bands, and calibrate equipment to fill in holes in coverage. The features are part of an upgrade to its AirOS control software.

Trapeze, meanwhile, continues to focus on its own software, called RingMaster. It now has a single Windows interface, and can monitor roaming client devices on the fly. “We can see the utilization and signal strength as they move around,” says Van Nice. Wizard-based configuration should also make it easier for anyone to set up.

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