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Building an Enterprise-Class Wireless Network - Integrating multiple devices from multiple vendors is key
Building an Enterprise-Class Wireless Network - Integrating multiple devices from multiple vendors is key

Vendor-lock is a term circling the wireless LAN (WLAN) sector. A number of startups have begun releasing new network devices - WLAN switches, which promise to make wireless LANs manageable, secure, and reliable. However, for those intrepid enterprises that have already deployed WLANs, they have a big question looming before them about adopting these new technologies: Will they work with my existing access points (APs)?

WLANs were initially a home-networking technology often brought into the enterprise through the back door by engineers who wanted to browse the Net while away from their desks. Although WLANs are pushing their way into corporations at a rapid clip, they still carry a good deal of home-networking baggage: minimal security, nonexistent management functions, and an inability to support a large user base.

As WLANs moved from consumer class to business class, companies like Cisco and Proxim focused on beefing up APs so they could authenticate users, handle more traffic, and communicate back to the wired corporate network in a secure fashion.

This first wave of business-class WLAN solutions pushed all traffic handling, authentication, RF management, and mobility functions out to individual "fat" APs. However, the problem with the traditional fat-AP model is that the APs act in isolation as tiny networking islands that are unable to perform such functions as seamless roaming, single sign-on, and load balancing. In traditional deployments, which assume a small user base and a confined location, this is fine. But to be enterprise-class, WLANs must support hundreds of users, and distributing control functions out to the APs forces network managers into a tough trade-off: Do they want robust WLANs supporting many users, or do they want a cost-effective solution? In the fat-AP world, they can't have both.

WLAN switch startups, such as Aruba Networks and Trapeze Networks, formed to address this problem. Their switches allow enterprises to move away from a fat-AP to a thin-AP architecture. By centralizing intelligence within a WLAN switch, functions like security, mobility, and QoS can be managed across the entire wireless enterprise.

So far so good, right? Well, maybe not. For starters, we need to return to the fact that many enterprises have already deployed Cisco, Symbol, or Proxim WLANs. In most cases, these are not massive, enterprise-wide deployments, but even so, it makes little sense to toss out a slew of robust, feature-rich APs just because you want to centralize your WLAN architecture. In a sluggish economy, throwing away good equipment doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Choosing a Vendor
From an AP-standpoint, the myriad WLAN systems vendors can be roughly segmented into two camps: 1) those with proprietary APs as an integral part of the larger WLAN system, and 2) those claiming to be "AP agnostic" and willing to incorporate third-party access points into their networks. The large players entering the space, like Nortel and Foundry, typically lock customers into proprietary access points, whereas a few of the startups, like Bluesocket and Vernier, espouse the latter view, believing that the radio frequency (RF) and 802.11 protocol issues need to be worked out before committing to specific end nodes.

Why, though, would you want to buy your WLAN switch from one vendor and your APs from another? Wouldn't it be easier to base your network on a single vendor? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on which vendors offer the features that best match your needs, and those features vary from vendor to vendor. Moreover, as WLAN clients and switches improve, the AP is quickly becoming the weak link in the WLAN chain. That's not to say there is no innovation on the AP front. There is, but the current trend in access-point innovation is centered either on power, with vendors starting to utilize Power over Ethernet (PoE) to juice the devices, or on putting some intelligence in the nodes. While certain switch vendors intend to drive network intelligence out to the access points, this itself addresses only two issues: authentication and roaming. Problems of interference, bandwidth, and range, though, are not part of the equation.

In other words, even for customers starting from scratch, a WLAN deployment based on any single vendor may threaten to doom your network to obsolescence in the near future.

Enterprises are caught in a Catch-22. While it would be wasteful to toss out perfectly good APs today in order to reap the benefits of centralized intelligence and control, it's also a risk to believe that you won't want to integrate newer and better APs into the network as it evolves. Already, chip-level solutions are being developed to improve access-point throughput and range; thus, organizations deploying WLANs should keep an eye toward future-proofing their networks.

With this in mind, corporations face a difficult decision when making the wireless plunge. Do they trust one vendor, opting for the ease of an end-to-end deployment? Or do they focus on the core of the network, while opting for flexibility in how the end points are deployed, allowing for incremental upgrades as new technologies emerge?

As opposed to the single-vendor WLAN switching approach, several startups, including AirFlow Networks, ReefEdge, and Bluesocket, believe that the wireless and wired LANs should be treated as separate entities. By utilizing a wireless gateway to make security, routing, and management decisions, the wireless network can be treated as a separate entity, which allows the gateway to handle a number of functions not typical of wired LANs, such as roaming and authentication. Thus, the gateway approach puts less emphasis on the endpoints, allowing access points to be thin, cheap, and, essentially, disposable. As new access-point technology comes along, customers can rapidly adopt new network end nodes, having already recouped their initial access-point investments.

The Role of Gateways
Typically, gateways serve two roles. First, they impose order on the chaotic WLAN. Gateways provide initial user authentication and handle roaming between access points and subnets. They add security features, encrypt traffic, conduct packet inspection, and ensure QoS. Second, the gateways, as the name implies, serve as the portal to the LAN, aggregating WLAN traffic before sending it through to the wired network.

Bluesocket is indicative of this gateway approach, and, with over 400 customers, it is possibly the most successful WLAN gateway vendor. Rather than looking at the WLAN as a simple LAN extension, Bluesocket considers the wireless segment of the network as a unique entity with its own specific needs. Many factors change when an enterprise extends its network over the air. Security, authentication, and management all become more complex, and the traditional switching approach often tries to treat the radio channel as an over-the-air wire, which it is not.

A gateway approach to wireless first of all extends the LAN with wireless access and provides management of the WLAN itself, enabling inspected traffic to flow back and forth between the two. Gateways act to centralize management and security, allowing customers to choose the access point that is right for them.

Most gateways should also support wireless devices and access points from all major vendors, while supporting all current and future 802.11 versions. This open-systems approach means that organizations won't be locked into a specific technology or vendor, thereby ensuring interoperability with current and future WLAN infrastructures.

Where multiple wireless gateways are deployed across multiple WLANs, these wireless gateways communicate with each other; configuration is performed on one unit and changes are automatically pushed out to all other wireless gateway devices without the need for a central server.

With dynamic traffic optimization across the WLAN infrastructure, each user, group, or service can be allocated its appropriate amount of the WLAN bandwidth. For instance, the CEO's traffic could be prioritized over that of a visitor's. Or specific departments, such as sales, could be prioritized over engineering or data entry.

By separating the wireless and wired networks, a smart gateway ensures that a company can go wireless without disrupting its existing infrastructure. While some of the switch vendors essentially require that existing LAN infrastructure be ripped out and replaced, the gateway accepts whatever is already installed on the LAN side, simply stitching it together with the new wireless network.

Moreover, the gateway approach is not only open to new vendors, but to new technologies as well. As new client devices hit the market, they can work on the WLAN without reconfiguring the device or network, and as new access points with better throughput and less radio channel interference hit the market, the gateway allows the WLAN to immediately benefit from this innovation.

The WLAN space is still new, and innovation is the order of the day. Until recently, WLAN technology was a consumer technology, and it has only recently been working its way upstream into the business market. However, with WLAN still toting much of the baggage from its consumer origins, businesses must carefully consider how to deploy wireless in the enterprise. Without a solution in place to distribute security and QoS policy out to the wireless enterprise, the wireless network is anything but enterprise-class. And without the ability to integrate multiple devices from multiple vendors, any network is less than best in class.

About Victor Cruz
Victor Cruz is a consultant and writer living in Boston who has published articles in American Venture, Boston Business Journal, and Harvard Review. His last article in Wireless Business & Technology appeared in the February 2003 issue.

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